The SOFIA Telescope is a joint NASA and German Aerospace Center project to construct and maintain an airborne observatory. Designed as the successor to the Kuiper Airborne Observatory, SOFIA’s telescope saw first light on May 26, 2010. It will observe celestial magnetic fields, star-forming regions, comets, nebulae, and the galactic centre.
The SOFIA telescope design is based on a Boeing 747SP wide-body aircraft that has been modified to allow for a 2.5 m (8.2 ft) diameter reflecting telescope access to the sky. The telescope designed on the Boeing 747 has been designed for infrared astronomy observations in the stratosphere at altitudes of about 12 kilometres, which is 41,000 ft. This is important because SOFIA’s flight capability allows it to rise above almost all of the water vapor in the Earth’s atmosphere, which blocks some infrared wavelengths from reaching the ground. At the aircraft cruising altitude of 12 kilometers, 85% of the full infrared range will be available for study.
The telescope and plane were scheduled to be flown three or four nights a week, if the original funding and plans had remained. The observatory was planned and scheduled to be operational for 20 years. The telescope and observatory are based out of the Armstrong Flight Research Center.
Scientific research and observations
The primary science objectives of SOFIA are to study the composition of planetary atmospheres and surfaces; to investigate the structure, evolution and composition of comets; to determine the physics and chemistry of the interstellar medium; and to explore the formation of stars and other stellar objects. SOFIA has been used also for Astrobiology missions, which has focused on the observation of new planetary systems and on the detection of complex molecules.
Important discoveries by the SOFIA Telescope include the detection of atomic oxygen in the atmosphere of Mars, observation of 1 Ceres in the mid-infrared to help learn that it was coated with a layer of asteroid dust from other bodies, and observations of a star occultation of 486958 Arrokoth.