Monday, May 31, 2010

'First Light' As SOFIA Completes Observation Flight

The German-American Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, SOFIA, completed an important milestone by achieving 'first light' when it performed its first observations during the night between 25 and 26 May 2010.

SOFIA is the only airborne observatory in the world, operated jointly by NASA and the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum fur Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR). The observatory carried out observations of astronomical objects at infrared wavelengths in flight.

First Light
The modified Boeing 747SP houses a 2.7-metre reflecting telescope built in Germany under DLR management. The aircraft took off at 21:45 local time from its home base, the NASA Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, California.

During a eight-hour flight that reached 11,000 metres in altitude, the 18-person crew of scientists, engineers and technicians tested the telescope's performance to its limits and took the first infrared images of test objects in the night sky.

The crowning achievement of the night: scientists recorded images of the Messier 82 (M82) galaxy and of Jupiter, at wavelengths unobservable by ground- or space-based telescopes.

The composite image of Jupiter shows heat pouring out of the planet's interior through holes in its clouds. In the infrared image of M82, it is possible to look through the galaxy's interstellar dust clouds to show several 'starburst' knots in which stars are forming by the tens of thousands.

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