Luke Keller

Luke Keller

Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Physics and Astronomy

Specialty:Optical instrumentation, astrophysics, physics education research
Phone:(607) 274-3966
Office:264 Ctr for Natural Sciences
Ithaca, NY 14850


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Preparing for astronomy with NASA's newest airborne observatory

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Posted by Luke Keller at 8:57PM   |  Add a comment
Page from a 747 pamphlet describing emerguency procedures.

In order to get a NASA security badge allowing us to move and work unescorted at Site 9 and in the SOFIA hangar, we have to take several safety training classes to learn about chemicals and lab equipment that we will use or that others use at the facility. For SOFIA these include acetone (the main ingredient in nail polish remover, though we use it to clean metal parts and tools), isopropanol (rubbing alcohol), and hydrazine (jet fuel on steroids). The first two are mainly lab fire hazards, though ingesting them or breathing their fumes is a bad idea too, but hydrazine is nasty stuff. It is very volatile (low ignition temperature and reactive with many common materials) and also very poisonous. Its volatility and reactivity make it an excellent rocket fuel (no oxygen necessary!) and it is the fuel used in one of the other aircraft housed with SOFIA at Site 9. We just need to know what to do if there is a hydrazine leak. Get ready...this IS rocket science, but it's easy...if you smell it, evacuate the building immediately to a position upwind. Oh, and by the way, if you can smell it (smells like amonia, apparently) you've already had an unsafe dose. Yucky. There is a hydrazine alarm system separate from the fire alarm system. We were all glad to hear that they have never had a hydrazine leak at Site 9. Other day-to-day hazards include heavy equipment lifting with various kinds of cranes, cryogenic liquids (nitrogen and helium to cool the infrared instruments including FORCAST), and compressed gasses like nitrogen and helium. Except for hydrazine, we work with these routinely in the labs at Ithaca College and Cornell, but it's good to have a refresher course and see how they do things at NASA. That's going to be a recurring theme, I think: learning how they do things at NASA!

And then there are the hazards associated with air travel. We spent the rest of the day learning how to use oxygen masks in the event of a cabin decompression (SOFIA will fly to altitudes between 41,000 and 45,000 feet), how to fight fires on an aircraft, and how to evacuate a 747 after an emergency landing. The oxygen masks we'll use are not the so-called "dixie cups" that pop out of the ceilings of commercial flights, these masks actually allow you to move around and do something useful like fight a fire or prepare for an emergency landing. There are no flight attendants on SOFIA (or rather WE'RE the flight attendants) so we rehearsed opening the aircraft doors and learned the locations of fire extinguishers and survival kits. We also learned how to deploy the evacuation slides/liferafts, though I was disappointed that we didn't actually use one. Seems it costs many thousands of dollars to stuff one of those slides back into the door! It was a long day of seminars and demonstrations, but I'm glad to have the training and to have met so many people that I will be working with over the next few years.




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