The Past and Future of Airborne Astronomy

The Kuiper and SOFiA

(Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy)

In its 20 years of operation the KAO has flown nearly 1,000 research flights. NASA's Airborne Astronomy program has produced a string of major scientific "firsts", including the discovery of rings around Uranus, and measurements of radioactive elements in a supernova. The KAO has made fundamental contributions to the study of star formation in galaxies, interstellar chemistry and studies of the mysterious forces at work in the center of our own galaxy.

Because the Kuiper flies relatively often, it has trained many young astronomers, providing an opportunity to design and fly experiments far more quickly, flexibly and inexpensively than using spacecraft. New instruments can be flown, tested, and modified with ease. The plane can deploy to airfields around the world to study rare astronomical events, like the passage of Comet Halley, eclipses and occultations.

The KAO has also flown nearly 100 educators on research missions, through the FOSTER program (Flight Opportunities for Science Teacher EnRichment) and other projects. "Though science is the focal point, the excitement and spirit of exploration is what hooks our students," said one teacher. "Cooperation, communication and problem-solving are overwhelming qualities we observed while working with the Kuiper team."

Opportunities for education are a major aspect of plans for the Kuiper's successor.

SOFIA: Plans for the future

SOFIA, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, is being developed as the facility to support the next generation of Airborne and Infrared Astronomy programs, though funding and timetable are currently uncertain. Plans are to ground the KAO in October 1995, if SOFIA is approved.

SOFIA will be a 2.5 meter telescope mounted in a Boeing 747 that will fly at altitudes of 41,000 to 45,000 feet. It will provide 160 eight-hour flight opportunities per year for 60 astronomy teams. This would be three times the flight rate of the KAO. SOFIA would also provide three times higher resolution in the infrared, and 10 times the sensitivity of the Kuiper. Its main scientific missions would be a study of the formation of stars and planets in our own galaxy; comparisons with other galaxies; to look for planets forming around distant stars, and study the origin and evolution of molecules important to life in the interstellar medium; to research the formation of our solar system, survey comets, planetary atmospheres and rings, and try to understand the dynamic and mysterious forces that power the luminous activity hidden at the center of our own Milky Way. SOFIA would be designed for an operational lifetime in excess of 20 years.

SOFIA is in the final pre-development stage. The German space agency (DARA) is a partner with NASA in SOFIA, and intends to contribute the powerful new telescope and to help support ongoing operations. NASA will provide the aircraft and all other technical, logistical and scientific support.

Says Carl Gillespie, KAO Science Coordinator and a pioneer of airborne astronomy, "The 747 can reach cruising altitude faster than the Kuiper. It has the range, can stay aloft longer. The airframe can support a telescope up to three times the size of our current telescope. The 747 can easily operate out of commercial airports anywhere in the world. It will be a roving, high profile ambassador of both modern astronomy and sophisticated technology. Instead of being off at some distant mountain peak, the 747 will bring astronomy to the people."

One way it will do this may be through the integration of "telescience" and educational opportunities into the SOFIA mission, through the development of technology to link scientists, students and teachers directly to the stratosphere. Said one project engineer:

"Probably the most exciting thing new information systems technologies make possible is a live, 2-way audio-video-data link from SOFIA to the ground. Operations people on the ground can help solve in-flight problems. Scientists can `join' an airborne investigator on an observing run without leaving their offices. And hundreds, thousands of students can fly along with the crew as they probe the cosmos."

SOFIA's supporters say it will encourage innovative science, inspire a broad, general audience with the spirit of exploration, show the flag of U.S. technical expertise around the world, train future scientists, help build an engineering base and foster economic competitiveness.

The educational potential of SOFIA, in fact, is being researched through the Live from the Stratosphere flights and the educational activities surrounding them. Your interest and reactions can help shape the ways in which students and teachers will interact with SOFIA and its scientists in the future.

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