From SOFIA: “Eight Things to Know About Our Flying Observatory”



SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy)

Our flying observatory, called SOFIA, is the world’s largest airborne observatory. It is a partnership with the German Aerospace Center (DLR). SOFIA studies the life cycle of stars, planets (including Pluto’s atmosphere), how interstellar dust can contribute to planet formation, analyzes the area around black holes, and identifies complex molecules in space.

1. A Telescope in an Airplane
SOFIA stands for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy. It is a Boeing 747SP aircraft that carries a 100-inch telescope to observe the universe while flying between 38,000 and 45,000 feet – the layer of Earth’s atmosphere called the stratosphere.

2. The Short Aircraft Means Long Flights
SP stands for “special performance.” The plane is 47 feet shorter than a standard 747, so it’s lighter and can fly greater distances. Each observing flight lasts 10-12 hours.

3. It Flies with A Hole in the Side of the Plane…
The telescope is behind a door that opens when SOFIA reaches altitude so astronomers on board can study the universe. The kind of light SOFIA observes, infrared, is blocked by almost all materials, so engineers designed the side of the aircraft to direct air up-and-over the open cavity, ensuring a smooth flight.

4. …But the Cabin is Pressurized!
A wall, called a pressure bulkhead, was added between the telescope and the cabin so the team inside the aircraft stays comfortable and safe. Each flight has pilots, telescope operators, scientists, flight planners and mission crew aboard.

5. This Telescope Has to Fly
Water vapor in Earth’s atmosphere blocks infrared light from reaching the ground. Flying at more than 39,000 feet puts SOFIA above more than 99% of this vapor, allowing astronomers to study infrared light coming from space. The airborne observatory can carry heavier, more powerful instruments than space-based observatories because it is not limited by launch weight restrictions and solar power.

6. Studying the Invisible Universe
Humans cannot see what is beyond the rainbow of visible light. However, many interesting astronomical processes happen in the clouds of dust and gas that often surround the objects SOFIA studies, like newly forming stars. Infrared light can pass through these clouds, allowing astronomers to study what is happening inside these areas.

7. The German Telescope
The telescope was built our partner, the German Aerospace Center, DLR. It is made of a glass-ceramic material called Zerodur that does not change shape when exposed to extremely cold temperatures. The telescope has a honeycomb design, which reduces the weight by 80%, from 8,700 lb to 1,764 lb. (Note that the honeycomb design was only visible before the reflective aluminum coating was applied to the mirror’s surface).

8. ZigZag Flights with a Purpose
The telescope can move up and down, between 20-60 degrees above the horizon. But it can only move significantly left and right by turning the whole aircraft. Each new direction of the flight means astronomers are studying a new celestial object. SOFIA’s flight planners carefully map where the plane needs to fly to best observe each object planned for that night.

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SOFIA is a joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR). The aircraft is based at and the program is managed from NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center’s facility in Palmdale, California. NASA’s Ames Research Center, manages the SOFIA science and mission operations in cooperation with the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) headquartered in Columbia, Maryland, and the German SOFIA Institute (DSI) at the University of Stuttgart.

NASA image

DLR Bloc