By Andrew Liszewski
The Hubble space telescope produced some pretty amazing images of the universe (eventually) because unlike ground-based telescopes, it wasn’t hindered by having to look through the layers of the Earth’s atmosphere. On the other hand, getting the satellite up there and keeping it maintained was not exactly cheap.
So as part of NASA’s Origins Program, they’ve been working with the DLR, German Aerospace Center to develop a plane-based telescope known as SOFIA. (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy.) A 2.5 meter reflecting telescope has been built into a Boeing 747SP that was specially modified by L-3 Communications Integrated Systems to include among other things, a large door that could be opened while the plane was cruising at 45,000 feet and a system to pre-chill the optical components to avoid condensation when they were exposed to the cold at high altitudes.
While SOFIA will be limited to studying the universe in the infrared spectrum, it will be able to make observations that are impossible for any ground based telescope, no matter how high on a mountain they might be built. And the last time I checked, running and maintaining a 747 was a lot cheaper than the Space Shuttle. SOFIA actually made its first test flight way back in April, but it’s not expected to begin full operations until 2009.