NASA’s new telescope aboard Boeing aircraft may solve ‘origin of life’ puzzle

November 14th, 2007 - 10:29 am ICT by admin  

Housed in a 16-foot opening in the fuselage of a modified Boeing 747SP aircraft, the telescope will offer astronomers a new window on the ever-evolving Milky Way that houses our own planet Earth.

“The most exciting science is really trying to understand the chemistry and, potentially, the biology that’s going on in space, and really getting to the heart of the question-Did life form here on Earth, or did it form out in space?” the Discovery News quoted SOFIA mission’s chief scientist, Eric Becklin, as saying.

With its 8-foot diameter primary mirror, the 45,000-pound observatory is a bit bigger than the Hubble Space Telescope, which observes primarily visual and ultraviolet light.

SOFIA is intended to operate at altitudes up to 45,000 feet, a perch that would put it above 99 percent of Earth’s atmospheric water vapour, which blocks wavelengths from reaching the ground.

“In the visible and ultraviolet, you’re mainly looking at stars,” said Becklin.

“When you look in infrared, you see stars. But you also see the dust and gas those stars formed from or are throwing off as they die. You really get a different view of the universe,” he added.

SOFIA’s scientific agenda includes studying star formation in the Milky Way galaxy, determining the chemical composition of the interstellar medium and seeing through the dust hiding the black hole at the center of the galaxy.

“We can open up some wavelengths that are impossible to see from any ground-based observatory,” said SOFIA science program manager Ed Austin.

The new infrared telescope has its own advantages over ground-based observatories.

For one, it is less expensive to build and operate than space-based observatories and can be quickly positioned to view cosmic phenomena such as approaching comets.

According to Austin, another advantage that SOFIA has is its position on the modified aircraft.

“We can position the aircraft anywhere in the world to take advantage of some really unique things that ground-based observatories are likely not able to get,” he said. This includes SOFIA scientists taking advantage of newer, but potentially riskier, technologies than those typically onboard space-based platforms that cannot be retrieved or modified.

By adding a door to keep the observatory safe and dry during takeoffs and landings, scientists have been able to further increase the utility factor of the aircraft.

Test flights of the jet with the telescope’s door closed are already underway at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, California. Open-door excursions are scheduled to begin next year.

NASA hopes to have its first images from SOFIA in 2009. (ANI)

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Posted in Sci-Tech |