Saturday, June 22, 2013
Martin Garay MacLean (IC Physics '14) arrived at LAX on June 9 and we made the short trip to Palmdale, CA, along Interstate 405 and then up to the Mojave Desert. He was pretty excited. Our SOFIA flight, scheduled for the night of June 11, would be his chance to see our data analysis software in action for the first time outside of our lab at Ithaca College. We met Kim Ennico Smith, a FORCAST grism team member who works at NASA, for a Mexican food dinner to discuss plans for the flight. We spent the next day getting our software and the latest data files loaded onto a laptop computer that will be our flight computer. Then we set off for the DAOF to get Martin his security badge and his first peek at SOFIA. It never gets old: walking into the huge hangar and seeing SOFIA towering over us is just an incredible experience. It was really fun for me to see each of my students experience that for the first time. That evening I joined Kim and Martin for their "egress training", a short safety course that prepares SOFIA flight participants for the unique safety issues possible on the aircraft. Since we wander the aircraft during flights, working at different stations, we need to carry emergency oxygen supplies with us in a small package the size of a small pack of tortilla chips. Next day was flight day!
Each flight begins at around 5:30 pm local time with a briefing that is required for all flight participants. We learn about the flight plan, weather reports along the way, and the flight manifest (who's flying and what their role is). This flight we had the privilege of hosting a great group of Airborne Ambassadors, middle and high school science teachers who fly and then collaborate with the researchers on the flight. They had lots of questions and it was fun to interact with them during the flight when we weren't busy with our test procedures. There was also a news crew from the CBS affiliate in Los Angeles. Takeoff was at 7:36 local time.
Martin and I set up at the Science Instrument rack, the FORCAST control center on SOFIA, during the flight legs testing our spectroscopic observing modes. Martin got to see data coming in real time and the software working well to reduce the data to spectral graphs we could use to verify that things were working well. We also kept a list of possible upgrades to the software that we'll work on as part of Martin's summer research internship. Ten hours after takeoff we landed on the same runway and taxied to the DAOF hangar. The sun was rising as we made our way to the hotel for a three hour's sleep before starting the journey home to Ithaca.
The past few weeks have been really fun for me. As an undergraduate student I was given an amazing opportunity to help develop an instrument for a new (at that time) large observatory. It's really gratifying, a dream come true really, to be able to provide that kind of opportunity for my students. All three got to see the culmination of their contributions to a big international science project in person. Really fun.
SOFIA has now started the first cycle of "General Observer" observations. That means observations conducted for new research projects by astronomers in the general professional community. Test flights are DONE for FORCAST; now comes the real fun!