NASA’S SOFIA: How the largest airborne observatory in the world is changing astronomy



Have you ever looked up into the night sky even with a telescope and wished you could see more?

Imagine peering into the birth or death of a star, looking at the formation of new solar systems and reaching out into the mysteries of black holes at the center of galaxies.

This is SOFIA.

SOFIA stands for Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, and it’s the largest airborne observatory in the world. It’s a highly modified Boeing 747 airplane that actually has a telescope that opens up in the back end of the plane and comes out during flight.

Most objects in space emit almost all of their energy at infrared wavelengths.

Imagine looking up from the ground on a morning filled with thick fog; think of the Earth’s water vapor as that fog, blocking visible wavelengths from penetrating to the ground.

SOFIA flies into the stratosphere and is able to get above all that.

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This is an exciting time in space exploration, and right in our very backyard we are making incredible discoveries with the worlds largest airborne observatory, SOFIA.

“With SOFIA, we made fantastic images of that dust which is orbiting the black hole, and it just revolutionized our understanding of whats happening right in the very core of the galaxy,” says Dr. Eric Becklin, SOFIA’s astrophysicist.

SOFIA is NASA’s eye in the sky, and her name stands for Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy.

She has to get high in the atmosphere to get above the water vapor because water vapor blocks infrared light from getting to the ground.

Most objects in space emit almost all of their energy at infrared wavelengths, so think of SOFIA as a light catcher of these objects in space.

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NASA’s Sofia is the largest airborne observatory in the world.

CBS47 Chief Meteorologist Marina Jurica had the opportunity to fly on Sofia, and she’s introducing us to three Central Valley teachers from Sierra High School in Manteca, California who rode with her.

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Ever since she was a young girl, Liz Ruth wanted to fly in the sky.

As a daughter of an aeronautical engineer for the Navy, she grew up with a strong military and aeronautical influence.

Now, she’s a NASA research pilot.

“I knew I wanted to be a pilot early on,” Ruth says. Adding, “I grew up in China Lake which is out in the desert and out in the Navy base where we had a lot of Navy jet planes flying overhead all the time so it was kind of an air show everyday.”

While Ruth was in high school, the military started a trial program to permit female pilots to achieve flight status. She joined the Air Force ROTC and knew what she wanted to do.

“People would tell me, but you know that’s really hard, like that should get in my way, and I just said i’m willing to work hard and it’s something I really want to do, so why shouldn’t I do it?” she remembered.

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