The Pre-Flight Briefing

Activity 2A "Welcome aboard the Kuiper Airborne Observatory"


To introduce the Kuiper Airborne Observatory and its unique mission. This is the only reading activity among the Student Activities. It's designed to provide a basic reference for students to use throughout the project.

Ask students if they've ever heard of a telescope in an airplane. Ask them to think about trips they may have taken aboard a commercial airliner, or movies they've seen about flight: what special problems might there be in putting a telescope in an airplane? Have them brainstorm reasons why astronomers might want to use such a flying observatory.

Explain that the class is going to participate in an "electronic field trip" to the Kuiper Airborne Observatory where they will discover what it's like to observe the universe at 41,000 feet, at the very edge of space. You might tell them that this field trip is as unique as the KAO: it will involve the first-ever use of NASA's Advanced Communications Technologies Satellite to transmit television signals down from the plane, and feed student questions back up to the KAO!

Materials copies of activity 2A, page 33

Procedure Distribute the activity sheet and ask students to read it. Ask questions about each paragraph. The details are critical for students to appreciate before proceeding with the following activities. They provide background on the KAO and why it was built. By asking students to explain what they read, you can be certain that students grasp the rationale for this telescope in the sky.

Ask students when the KAO might be the best telescope to use for an observing project, and why. Discuss student answers. The Live from the Stratosphere poster may provide some good discussion starters.

Interdisciplinary Connection

In the following activity, students can make a scale model of the interior of the KAO. In this model, every dimension will be reduced by a factor of 80. As a math activity, ask students to take the measurements for the KAO given on Activity sheet 2A (wing-span, length and height), and divide them by 80. These will determine the size of their model.

KAO Connection

Read the description of "KAO's Greatest Hits," on page 51. Describe these to students. The poster provides an image of Uranus, and information about supernovas, comets and the use of the infrared portion of the spectrum. You might assign students to investigate these "firsts", such as the discovery of the rings of Uranus, or definitive proof of the existence of water vapor in Halley's Comet, to see if textbooks make "the KAO connection".

It Takes a Lot of People

Jesse Bregman (Hawaii 1994)

Considering the complexity of the aircraft, the telescope, and the spectrometer, I am always amazed that we have any successful flights at all, let alone 80-90% of the flights every year.

It takes a lot of people to make these flights happen. To start with, on the flight itself we had 5 scientists, three people in the cockpit (pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer), telescope operator, tracker operator (the person who finds the object we want to look at and then locks the automatic tracker onto a guide star), two computer operators, and the mission director (the person who coordinates the flight). So for a single flight, there were eight people on the airplane to support the science. But it doesn't end there.

Before the airplane ever takes off, there are a lot of people involved in getting the airplane ready for the flight. Remember that our previous flight was stopped early since the "chopper" (Editor's note: a special piece of equipment and technique which allows the KAO to image very faint objects) was not working? There were several people working on the chopper most of the day to fix the problems, and they got it fixed late in the afternoon. Then there is the ground crew, the group of people who make sure the airplane itself is in good shape and ready to fly. There are people who have to make sure all the aircraft supplies are available, and place orders to buy whatever is needed. There are people who arrange for hotel rooms and rental cars, those who make sure there is money to pay for the expedition, those who take care of shipping equipment and supplies...

Our work just begins at the end of our flight series ...once we have studied the data and interpreted the results, we will write a research paper explaining the results and how it relates to other aspects of astronomy. This whole process takes a lot of work, and will not be finished for perhaps one to two years. So, the data we just took on these flights is not the end of our research project, but is a starting point for further investigation.

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