NASA’s airborne division

Published in Sky At Night, 16 Nov 2010

Neither a space telescope nor a ground-based observatory, SOFIA is a compromise that could be one of astronomy’s most useful tools

It seemed like a good idea at the time: a modified jumbo jet that could fly non-stop, a quarter of the way around the world from New York to Tokyo, filled with passengers. But when Boeing’s 747SP (special performance) airliner went into production in the mid-’70s, it didn’t do as well as the company had hoped. Rising fuel prices, not to mention a hefty price tag, meant that only a few dozen of the planes were ever produced.

Too bad for Boeing. Yet for a team of researchers at NASA some two decades later, a grounded 747SP was an attractive bargain. Aside from the airliner’s extended flight range, it had an unusually short, fat body – fat enough to house a telescope the size of a hot tub. “The widest body gets you the widest diameter telescope,” says Dana Blackman, a spokesperson for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a joint project between NASA and the German space agency DLR. […]

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