Roamy here. With all the emphasis recently on the last space shuttle mission, people tend to forget that the first A in NASA is aeronautics. This is part of a series on what aircraft NASA has been flying lately.
SOFIA stands for Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy. (Note: XBradTC likes this Sophia better.) The observatory is built into a Boeing 747SP. I have a hard time imagining wanting to open up an airplane door at 41,000 feet, but that’s what these scientists do to get above the water vapor in Earth’s atmosphere and get better infrared observations. The door is on the aft end, port side. The science instruments are behind a pressurized bulkhead, which the telescope passes through.
One of the recent interesting discoveries made by SOFIA was being able to use an occulting star to study Pluto’s atmosphere. As Pluto passed between Earth and a specific star, the scientists were able to measure Pluto’s atmospheric pressure, density, and temperature profiles.
SOFIA’s platform, the Boeing 747SP itself has an interesting history – it was a commercial passenger jet, bought by Pan Am in 1977. On the 50th anniversary of Charles Lindbergh’s first solo trans-Atlantic flight, his widow, Anne Morrow Lindbergh was invited by Pan Am to christen the plane “Clipper Lindbergh”. This plane flew for Pan Am then for United Airlines until 1995. NASA acquired the plane and made the modifications for an airborne observatory. In 2007, Erik Lindbergh re-christened the “Clipper Lindbergh” for the 80th anniversary of his grandfather’s flight.