Students Go into Orbit for a NASA Research Project

This past June, three physics students from Ithaca College had the rare opportunity to work onboard the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA.
A collaboration between NASA and Germany’s space agency, SOFIA is a 747 aircraft with a special telescope built into its main compartment. At 17 tons, it is the world’s largest airborne telescope. According to IC professor Luke Keller, who has worked with SOFIA for almost 14 years, the aircraft flies at 43,000 feet to escape the water vapor in Earth’s atmosphere, which distorts images taken from closer to the Earth.
“It [the atmosphere] absorbs most of the infrared light coming from space, so the observations we want to make are impossible, or very inefficient, from telescopes located on the ground,” he says. “Infrared observations allow us to observe processes hidden by dust in space, like the formation of stars, solar systems, and even galaxies.”
And unlike telescopes based in space, SOFIA can be updated with the latest science instruments as they become available.
Casey Byrne ’13, Rob Lewis ’13, and Martín Garay MacLean ’13 have been working with Keller for the past few years to develop data analysis software for SOFIA, and the students were given the chance to test that software during a live flight. Byrne, who was also helping calibrate SOFIA’s camera for his senior thesis, got in half a flight and some time at the controls before technical issues forced the plane to land.
Those same issues prevented Lewis from boarding the next flight, though he was able to analyze data from the previous one. Garay MacLean’s flight went smoothly, and he worked to improve SOFIA’s software even further during his summer research internship at IC.
This fall another student, Katherine Kennovin ’14 conducted her senior thesis research on SOFIA.