Welcome Aboard the Kuiper Airborne Observatory

NASA's Kuiper Airborne Observatory (KAO) is a modified C-141 jet with a 36 inch telescope that observes through a hole which can be opened in its side. Flying at 41,000 feet, the KAO is above 85% of the Earth's atmosphere and more than 99% of Earth's water vapor. In this clear, dry environment, astronomers can study heat radiating from stars, planets, and other celestial sources--radiation normally absorbed by the water vapor.

The KAO's converted Lockheed C-141 "Starlifter" cargo plane is a four-engine long-range jet transport, with a wing span of 160 feet (49 m), length of 145 feet (44 m), and a height of 39 feet (12 m). Its empty weight with the telescope is 137,000 pounds. At a cruising speed of 506 miles per hour (814 km/hr), it routinely provides up to 6 and a half hours of observing time. The C-141 has a crew of two pilots and one flight engineer. KAO staff include a Mission Director, Telescope Operator, Tracker Operator and Computer Operator. The plane can carry up to 14 additional investigators and guests.

Study the photograph of the Kuiper Airborne Observatory. The next pages contain instructions for constructing a scale model of the KAO. On your model, every dimension will be reduced by a factor of 80. (Note: the KAO has just been repainted, so it may look a little different from some of the videos and photographs you will see.)

In the KAO, astronomers use infrared detectors to locate warm objects that are not hot enough to emit visible light. They can spot the cores of newborn and dying stars, enshrouded by dust, and can sight distant galaxies beyond the Milky Way. The faint bubble behind the bright Omega Nebula M17, (above) cannot be seen in visible light. The KAO has detected and mapped it in infrared wavelengths--as can be seen from this digitally enhanced image.

The airborne observatory can also react quickly to study rare events like solar eclipses, comet passages and supernova explosions. With little advance notice, it can be deployed worldwide to the best viewing location.


QUESTION: How many women are in the flight crew? How many women are in the experiment crew?

ANSWER: from Curt Laughlin, KAO Branch Chief

At present we have four women on our rotating operations crews. One is a mission director, one is a tracker operator, one is an electronics technician and one is a computer programmer. The experimenter teams vary from one group to another and there are many women associated with them. We presently do not have any women on the flight crew, but the net result is that quite a large number of women fly on the KAO at various times.

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