Dr.Sky and Photorecon Fly Aboard NASA’s SOFIA Aircraft
For the longest time, mankind has reached for the stars by building larger and larger telescopes to peer out into the vast unknown! The major problem for all telescope designs is being able to cut through the Earth’s thick atmosphere and still acquire quality image of faint celestial objects.
In the early part of the 20th century, astronomers in California built some of the largest telescopes known. Two examples of this are the 100 inch Hooker telescope that sits atop Mt. Wilson in Los Angeles County – the largest telescope in the world from 1917 to 1949 – until another great telescope, the impressive 200 inch, Mt. Palomar telescope, came online. Edwin Hubble used the 100 inch telescope to prove that our universe was expanding! Many discoveries were made with these giant instruments, including what the universe is made of and where we are in the Milky Way galaxy.
Welcome to airborne astronomy!
The combination of using aircraft and telescopes to peer deeper into the universe came about in the early 20th century. Flying above most of the atmosphere to capture images of faint celestial objects is one of the great technological achievements of science, and so it is with the NASA/ SOFIA Science Center’s specially modified 747SP aircraft. The name SOFIA stands for Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy. This amazing aircraft contains a specially designed 100 inch telescope that peers in to the infrared portion of the spectrum, while viewing select objects of interest.
With a team of scientists and aviation professionals, SOFIA makes regular flights in the sky to help solve some of the many mysteries of our known universe. Our media team got to fly aboard SOFIA. during a scheduled mission. Driving from Phoenix to Palmdale, California, was an easy six hour drive. With the help of Nicholas Veronico, the SOFIA Public Affairs Officer, we were greeted at the Palmdale facility to prepare for our flight, which carried a number of teachers from the SOFIA Ambassador program.
Day one consisted of going to a few special classes on the safety aspects of the flight and the aircraft. What amazed me most, was the size of the hangar that these aircraft were in. I was told that the hanger that we visited was once the production facility of some of America’s great bomber aircraft. The place is huge!!
SOFIA is huge too; a specially modified Boeing 747 SP aircraft that is one of the 45 or so SP “Special Performance” models of the 747. This aircraft has quite a storied a history; it is a former Pan Am and United airlines aircraft that moved lots of passengers in its day. During its Pan Am career it was christened “ Clipper Lindbergh” in honor of aviation great, Charles Lindbergh. After parts of Pan Am merged with United Airlines, it flew additional years in United colors, until it’s retirement from airline duties in 1995.
After a day of meeting many of the scientists and flight crew, we were set free to get a good nights sleep, so the next day we would be ready to embark on a nearly 10 hour mission. We were told about, and given information on our flight path and the objects that we were to observe on our special journey in the sky.
Flight day has arrived!
With great anticipation and excitement, we gathered our cameras and equipment, shopped for a few food items and headed off to the base for our new journey on SOFIA. Our plan was to have our Photorecon team document the mission with still photography and have some of the Dr.Sky team videotape a short documentary of the mission. The best of both worlds!
Another special treat that we looked forward to was for me to do my LIVE radio report for Coast To Coast AM with George Noory, from the SOFIA aircraft somewhere over America! This is a show that is heard on well over 1,000 stations in the USA and Canada, and beyond.
A final formal briefing was held, so we got to meet all the players from pilots to scientists for this mission. One final check of all the safety items and equipment, and we rolled our team and gear out to the flight line. Wow, SOFIA is really huge, especially up close. We boarded the modified jumbojet with our team and gear while lots of activity brewed inside this flying metal laboratory. At around 4;30PM local time, we took our seats and strapped in. Before we departed, we found our way around the maze of taxiways and runways at the Palmdale airport. Imagine how many famous aircraft have taken off from these runways! B-1 bombers, B-2 bombers and a famous aircraft, the legendary XB-70 Valkyrie, to name just a few.
With great precision, SOFIA lurched off the runway and thundered skyward, with its large telescope and curious crew of scientists eager and thirsty for more data on the wonders of the universe. Our flight took us over a good portion of the US during different legs of our journey: over California, Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Montana, Texas, and Kansas, just to name a few.
During each leg of the mission, scientists were securing LIVE data from the air, as they zoomed in on objects in hopes of studying star formation. During the flight, the door of the 100 inch telescope was opened in flight, but there was no trace of feeling the door being open…it was that smooth of a flight. We were cruising at between 41,000 ft and 43,000 ft above the ground during much of the mission, high above most of the water vapor in the atmosphere….right were SOFIA is at home.
SOFIA is tasked to explore the following:
- Star birth and death
- Formation of new solar systems
- Identification of complex molecules in space
- Observing planets, comets and asteroids in our solar system
- Nebulae and dust in galaxies
- Black holes at the center of galaxies
During the flight we got to see the Northern lights from some 43,000 ft over Montana. The highlight of the mission for me was being able to do my radio show, LIVE from 43,000ft above Nebraska, with millions of listeners hearing me do this from a moving aircraft…promoting the crew and staff of SOFIA!
Equally important is the great work that is being done on SOFIA to advance science and everyone should know that your tax dollars are being well spent! All this will be put into picture and video formats to share with you and yours, but a special thank you to Nicholas Veronico, SOFIA Public Affairs Officer, for making all this happen.
Dr.Sky reminds all of you to always, keep your eyes to the skies!
See you on the next exciting mission……
More on NASA 747NA
The SOFIA aircraft is a modified Boeing 747SP (serial number 21441, line number 306; registration N747NA; Callsign NASA747) with a distinguished history.
Boeing developed the SP or “Special Performance” version of the 747 for ultra long range flights, modifying the design of the 747-100 by removing sections of the fuselage and heavily modifying others to reduce weight, thus allowing the 747SP to fly higher, faster and farther non-stop than any other 747 model of the time.
Boeing assigned serial number 21441 (line number 306) to the airframe that would eventually become SOFIA. The first flight of this aircraft was on April 25, 1977 and Boeing delivered the aircraft to Pan American World Airways on May 6, 1977. The aircraft received its first aircraft registration, N536PA and Pan American placed the aircraft into commercial passenger service. Shortly thereafter, Pan Am named this aircraft in honor of the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh. At the invitation of Pan Am, Charles Lindbergh’s widow, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, christened the aircraft Clipper Lindbergh on May 20, 1977, the 50th anniversary of the beginning of her husband’s historic flight from New York to Paris in 1927.
United Airlines purchased the plane on February 13, 1986 and the aircraft received a new aircraft registration, N145UA. The aircraft remained in service until December, 1995, when United Airlines placed the aircraft into storage near Las Vegas.
On April 30, 1997, the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) purchased the aircraft for use as an airborne observatory. On October 27, 1997 NASA purchased the aircraft from the USRA. NASA conducted a series of “baseline” flight tests that year, prior to any heavy modification of the aircraft by E-Systems (Later Raytheon Intelligence and Information Systems then L-3 Communications Integrated Systems of Waco, Texas). To ensure successful modification, Raytheon purchased a section from another 747SP, registration number N141UA, to use as a full-size mock-up.
Commencing work in 1998, Raytheon designed and installed an 18-foot-tall (arc length) by 13.5-foot-wide (5.5 m x 4.1 m) door in the aft port side of the aircraft’s fuselage that can be opened in-flight to give the telescope access to the sky. The telescope is mounted in the aft end of the fuselage behind a pressurized bulkhead. The telescope’s focal point is located at a science instruments suite in the pressurized, center section of the fuselage, requiring part of the telescope to pass through the pressure bulkhead. In the center of the aircraft is the mission control and science operations section, while the forward section hosts the education and public outreach area.
At NASA’s invitation, Charles Lindbergh’s grandson, Erik Lindbergh, re-christened the aircraft with the name originally given by Pan Am, Clipper Lindbergh, on May 21, 2007, the 80th anniversary of the completion of Charles Lindbergh’s historic trans-Atlantic flight.
During 2012 the plane received a Glass Cockpit upgrade along with new Avionics Systems.