Preparing for astronomy with NASA's newest airborne observatory
About “Frequent Flyer”
About the airplane: The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) is Boeing 747-SP aircraft with a 2.7-meter astronomical telescope mounted in its fuselage. SOFIA is a joint project of NASA and DLR, the German space agency, operated by the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) and the Deutches SOFIA Institut (DSI). The observatory will fly to 41,000 feet allowing astronomers to observe infrared light, most of which is absorbed by water vapor in the lower atmosphere. SOFIA has finished its flight safety tests and the next series of tests will involve testing the telescope assembly the facility infrared camera, named (FORCAST).
About the author: (Luke Keller) I am an associate professor of Physics at Ithaca College and a member of the five-person team that will help with the SOFIA telescope test flight series using FORCAST. I served as Project Scientist during the development of FORCAST from 1999 to 2003. Since then, I have continued as a member of the FORCAST team, which is lead by Professor Terry Herter at Cornell University. With assistance from my Ithaca College students, Nirbhik Chitrakar (Class of 2008), Jordan Hyatt ('10), Kevin Geidel ('10), and Preston Barrows ('10), I am in charge of developing and testing the data processing and analysis software that will be used in flight. I also help with optical testing, and in collaboration with Cornell engineer, Chuck Henderson, on development of the calibration system for the camera. Ithaca student, Preston Barrows, played a significant role in designing, building, and testing the new calibration system.
It is very exciting to begin this next phase of SOFIA development using the telescope and the camera system we've worked so hard on. The SOFIA project has suffered numerous delays and this has been very frustrating for all involved in the project. It's also been frustrating for astronomers who have been waiting to use the new observatory. SOFIA was almost canceled in 2006 due to the delays and cost overruns, but project was revived and reorganized. After working on FORCAST for 10 years (!) the next few months working on the airplane will be very gratifying and fun for me. This blog will track our work as we test and prepare SOFIA for its "first light" flights. These will enable the first SOFIA images that will demonstrate the readiness of the observatory to begin astronomical observations.
I begin with descriptions of some preliminary that work we did in mid-2009 at the NASA Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility (DAOF) located in Palmdale, CA, near Edwards Air Force Base. Then there is a bit of a gap through summer and fall 2009 during which the aircraft development team worked on the telescope cavity door and on-baord software systems. During this time back in Ithaca the FORCAST team installed and tested new infrared detectors and prepared the instrument for its move from the Cornell University lab to its new home at DAOF. The FORCAST team is a great cast of characters so introductions are in order:
- Terry Herter (Professor of Astronomy at Cornell University) is the FORCAST project priniciple investigator
- Gordon Stacey (Professor of Astronomy at Cornell University) is a co-investigator
- Joe Adams (Ph.D. Research Associate at Cornell University) is the FORCAST Project Scientist
- George Gull (Mechanical Engineer at Cornell Univerisity) is the Lead Engineer
- Justin Schoenwald (Software Engineer at Cornell University) is the software engineer and guru
- Chuck Henderson (Mechanical Engineer at Cornell Univeristy) is making everything fit together while Goerge works on certification paperwork and instrument documentation
- Thomas Nikola (Ph.D. Research Associate at Cornell University) helped with custom infrared filters for FORCAST
- Luke Keller (That's me! Associate Professor of Physics at Ithaca College) is a co-investigator
The FORCAST Grism team, responsible for developing and implementing the grism spectroscopic modes, consists of the FORCAST team plus:
- Kim Ennico (NASA Ames Research Center and Southwest Research Institute)
- Tom Greene (NASA Ames Research Center)
- Dan Jaffe (Professor of Astronomy at the University of Texas at Austin)
- Mike Pavel (Post doctoral research associate at the University of Texas at Austin)
- Greg Sloan (Senior Research Associate at Cornell University)
- Ithaca College students: Casey Byrne (class of 2013), Rob Lewis (class of 2013), Martin Garay MacLean, Jeff Olson, Madison Mangano, Kat Kennovin