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NASA's SOFIA sees the 'First Light'

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NASA Boeing 747 carrying a huge German-made infrared telescope SOFIA. A file photo

MOFFETT FIELD (BNS): The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) has achieved a major milestone by capturing its first infrared images with its in-flight night observations.

SOFIA is a joint programme between NASA and DLR Deutsches Zentrum fur Luft- und Raumfahrt (German Aerospace Center).

"With this flight, SOFIA begins a 20-year journey that will enable a wide variety of astronomical science observations not possible from other Earth and space-borne observatories," Jon Morse, Astrophysics Division director in the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters said in a NASA news release, Friday.

"It clearly sets expectations that SOFIA will provide us with "Great Observatory"-class astronomical science," he added.

According to the space agency, the highly modified SOFIA Boeing 747SP jetliner fitted with a 100-inch diameter reflecting telescope, took off from its home base at the Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, of NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center.

During the six-hour flight, the crew of 10 scientists, astronomers, engineers and technicians flew at an altitudes of up to 35,000 feet and gathered telescope performance data.

"A preliminary look at the first light data indicates we indeed accomplished that, "said SOFIA project scientist Pam Marcum of NASA's Ames Research Center in the release.

The stability and precise pointing of the German-built telescope met or exceeded the expectations of the engineers and astronomers who put it through its paces during the flight.

"The crowning accomplishment of the night came when scientists on board SOFIA recorded images of Jupiter," said USRA SOFIA senior science advisor Eric Becklin in the release.

The highly sensitive Faint Object infrared camera for the SOFIA Telescope (FORCAST) used for these initial observations was operated in flight by its builders. SOFIA will look for objects that emit radiation in infrared wavelengths, which are not visible to the human eye.

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