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Infrared Astronomy to Explore the Hidden Universe

Studying the universe using only visible light results in a very limited view, as visible light - the light you see with your eyes - reveals only part of the universe. Astronomers observe many other types of "light" to expand our views of the universe. Infrared energy is just one part of the electromagnetic spectrum, which includes visible light, x-rays, radio waves and others.


Many objects in space emit almost all their energy at infrared wavelengths. Often, they are invisible when observed in ordinary visible light. In other cases, clouds of gas and dust in space block the light emitted by more distant objects, but allow infrared energy to reach our telescopes. In both cases, the only way to learn about other objects is to study the infrared light they emit. By studying all the energy emitted by these astronomical objects, astronomers can understand them much better.


Initiated by NASA as a successor to the Kuiper Airborne Observatory, USRA is leading a team of industry experts to develop and operate the airborne observatory. SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) is the largest airborne observatory in the world, and will make observations that are impossible for even the largest and highest of ground-based telescopes. By including new instruments and upgrades to existing instruments regularly, SOFIA will retain its state-of-the-art capabilities. Via this instrument program SOFIA will enable the development of the technology required for future infra-red instrumentation.


SOFIA is a reflecting telescope housed in a modified Boeing 747SP that studies the universe in the infrared part of the spectrum. USRA and the Duetches SOFIA Institute will conduct International Science Mission Operations at Ames Research Center over SOFIA's 20 year lifetime.


The observing altitudes of SOFIA are between 37,000 and 45,000 feet, above 99% of the water vapor in the Earth's atmosphere. The telescope and instruments provide imaging and spectroscopic capabilities in the 0.3 - 1600 µm wavelength range, making SOFIA one of the premier infrared/sub-millimeter astronomical facilities. The telescope is located in an open cavity in the rear section of the aircraft, with a view out of the port side. Observations can be done at elevations between +20 and +60 degrees. The telescope is inertially stabilized and the pointing accuracy is about 0.5 arcseconds. The seeing is expected to be diffraction limited at all wavelengths longward of about 15 µm. There will be about 8 hours of observing time on each flight, and at full operations capability there will be three flights per week.

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