With the large door over its 2.5-meter German-built telescope wide open, NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy 747SP aircraft soars over Southern California’s high desert. SOFIA makes astronomical observations between 39,000 and 45,000 feet altitude, typically flying 10 hours per flight.Credit: NASA/Jim Ross
Ten years ago, NASA’s telescope on an airplane, SOFIA (the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy), first peered into the cosmos. Since the night of May 26, 2010, SOFIA’s observations of infrared light, invisible to the human eye, have made many scientific discoveries about the hidden universe.
The modified Boeing 747SP flies a nearly 9-foot diameter telescope up to 45,000 feet in altitude, above 99% of the Earth’s water vapor to get a clear view of the infrared universe not observable by ground-based telescopes. Its mobility also allows it to capture transitory events in astronomy over remote locations like the open ocean. Because SOFIA lands after each flight, it can be upgraded with the latest technology to respond to some of most pressing questions in science.
Using SOFIA, scientists detected the universe’s first type of molecule in space, unveiled new details about the birth and death of stars and planets, and explained what’s powering supermassive black ...