Friday, May 7, 2010
SOFIA test flights have been successful and plans are in the final stages now for the "first light flight," the first flight on which we will conduct astronomical observations with a science instrument on the telescope. First light is a major milestone for any observatory; it's usually the first time that the entire telescope-instrument combination are used to gather data that could be used for astronomy (as opposed to data used to test the telescope).
The SOFIA telescope assembly had it's first light in late 2008 while the aircraft was parked on the ground. For that initial test of the telescope system astronomers used the Lowell Observatory's High-Speed Imaging Photometer for Occultations (HIPO). That test verified that the telescope optics and aircraft observatory systems work together to allow astronomical observations. The FORCAST camera had it's own first light on a ground-based telescope. These tests showed that the FORCAST optical and electronic systems are ready. Last week SOFIA flew with the telescope cavity opens and the telescope tracking system on. Results of those tests showed that SOFIA can track astronomical objects well in flight.
Now it's time to put the SOFIA telescope and FORCAST together and test the performance of the telescope by making infrared images of bright stars. One measurement that we have made in preparation for these observations is to measure the infrared brightness of the sky using FORCAST from the ground with no telescope attached. George Gull and Chuck Henderson made those observations on May 5 and they are now installing FORCAST on the SOFIA telescope for the first time. The next step will be observations with FORCAST and SOFIA from the ground and, finally, the telescope characterization flight tests. Once those tests are completed successfully the plan is to image something that looks a bit more interesting.
FORCAST will be the instrument used for the first light in flight (I like to call it First [F]Light!). Stay tuned for the first astronomical data taken from SOFIA in flight!
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