A new infrared telescope has taken to the air in an extensively modified Boeing 747 under NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) programme.
The telescope, weighing 20 tonnes, was designed and built by Germany’s Aerospace Centre, the DLR, and fitted to the aircraft in what are described by prime contractor L-3 Communications as “the most dramatic physical modifications ever made to a 747”.
The Boeing 747SP was fitted with a 4.8m tall cavity door designed to open in flight during astronomical observations, and a complex liquid-nitrogen cooling system for pre-cooling the telescope to match the outside temperature at the 45,000ft operating altitude.
Once operational, SOFIA will help astronomers learn more about the birth of stars, the formation of solar systems, the origin of complex molecules in space, the nature and evolution of comets, how galaxies change with time and even the nature of the mysterious black holes lying at the centers of some galaxies, including our own.
NASA awarded a $484.2 million contract to the Universities Space Research Association in December 1996 to acquire, develop and operate SOFIA. Other team members besides L-3 Communications include Evergreen Airlines, the University of California, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and the SETI Institute.
First demonstrations of the fully operational system are expected in 2009, after completion of flight testing.