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Sofia Observatory Enters Aircraft Testing Phase


EDWARDS, Calif. - NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, known as SOFIA, began a series of flight tests Thursday of the highly modified Boeing 747SP aircraft. The tests are the first of several phases required to verify the aircraft is structurally sound for future science flights. This phase is scheduled to be completed by the end of this year.

After finishing flight testing and modifications, NASA plans to begin using the airborne observatory for “first light” infrared observations of the universe in 2009. The first light flights will enable the mission to begin obtaining results several years before the observatory reaches its full capability in 2014. SOFIA will collect science data using a variety of specialized instruments developed by NASA and its German partners.

“SOFIA is making tremendous progress toward the initiation of science observations in 2009, and this flight testing is another milestone along the path,” said Jon Morse, director of the Astrophysics Division in the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, Washington. “Early observations will have significant science community involvement to initiate broad use of this unique astronomical observatory.”

When operational, SOFIA’s 2.5-meter infrared telescope will conduct celestial observations while flying at altitudes up to 45,000 feet. This height will place the instrument above almost 99 percent of the Earth’s atmospheric water vapor, greatly enhancing its ability to observe the cosmos. The flying observatory is designed to detect the formation of stars in our galaxy, determine the chemical composition of the interstellar medium, and peer through the dust that hides the black hole at the center of the Milky Way.

During mission development, engineers installed a 17-metric-ton telescope in SOFIA’s aft fuselage at L-3 Communications Integrated Systems facility in Waco, Texas. They also cut a 16-foot-high telescope door into the fuselage during the telescope installation process.

After arrival at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, Calif., the aircraft was outfitted with test instrumentation critical for these preliminary flight tests. The aircraft also has been equipped with a telescope cavity environmental control system designed to keep the telescope dry when the door is closed and as the aircraft flies to the altitude required for operation of the observatory.

NASA is conducting the first series of flight tests with the cavity door closed. These flights will study the aerodynamics, structural integrity, stability and control, and handling qualities of the modified aircraft. Future flights will concentrate on the in-flight rotational motion and control of the German-built telescope.

After closed-door flight testing is complete, the flying observatory will undergo installation and integration of the remaining elements of the observatory before door-open test flights, which are scheduled to begin in late 2008.

“The largest technical challenges remaining are in 2008, with the remainder of the mission sub-system installation that will give the aircraft the ability to fly with the cavity door open,” said SOFIA aircraft project manager John Carter at Dryden.

The program is a partnership of NASA and the German Aerospace Center. Dryden manages SOFIA with science elements of the program managed by NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.


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