Luke Keller

Luke Keller

Dana Professor, Department of Physics and Astronomy

Specialty:Astrophysics, airborne astronomy, spectroscopy, optical instrumentation, natural science general education
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 1:39PM   |  1 comment
FORCAST team leader, Terry Herter, operating FORCAST just after its first installation on the SOFIA telescope. (Photo: George Gull)

I spent last Friday teaching sixth grade classes in McLean, VA, at Spring Hill Elementary School where my nephew is a student. We discussed infrared astronomy and SOFIA. Kids ask some of the best questions, many that adults are curious about but bashful to ask. These kids had great questions about what it's like to work on the aircraft so I decided to post those here with answers in case anyone else is wondering:

How long are the flights and where do you go?
Flights will be about 8 hours long, of which about 6 hours will be spent conducting astronomical observations. It takes about 1 hour from takeoff to reach the cruising altitude and start observations, and another hour at the end of the flight to descend and land. SOFIA currently takes off and lands at NASA's Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility (DAOF), located in Palmdale, CA. So after an 8 hour flight we end up exactly where we started! The actual route of our flights depends on what objects in the sky we are observing. Since the SOFIA telescope only points our of the port (left) side of the aircraft, we fly from east to west when looking into the southern part of the sky, west to east when looking north, etc. Flight plans for SOFIA look very chaotic since the aircraft must change direction every time we point the telescope towards a new object for observations, typically every hour or so.
How many people fly on a SOFIA flight?
There are three pilots in the flight crew, 10 seats in the First Class section in the nose of the aircraft, and 17 seats in the science operations section farther back. Not all seats will be occupied on a given flight, though. The average crew for science operations, not including the pilots, includes the mission director, one person operating the science instrument (camera or spectrograph), at least one telescope operator, and at least one astronomer from the team conducting the astronomical observations. So a total of three in the cockpit and at least four in the science operations section of the aircraft. 
Why does SOFIA have First Class seats?
These seats will often be unoccupied, but when SOFIA missions become more routine over the next few years these seats will be available for science teachers who work with astronomers to gain experience participating in astronomical observations first hand. These teachers will be part of the Airborne Astronomy Ambassador program. Other guests of the SOFIA project may occasionally use these seats. Finally, SOFIA will eventually spend part of the year flying from a base in the southern hemisphere. This will allow observations of objects in the southern sky, which are not possible from locations in the northern hemisphere. During the southern deployments of SOFIA it may be necessary to fly maintenance and other personnel from DAOF and Ames to the southern site and back. Currently the site planned for southern deployments is Christchurch, New Zealand.
What do you eat and drink while flying on SOFIA?
That depends on the person. There is no "galley" (or kitchen) on SOFIA like on commercial aircraft so we have to bring our own snacks and drinks and they can't require cooking. Most astronomers I know, including me, will just bring snacks. We have to be very careful not to spill food or drinks on the electronics and computers, though, we don't want sticky fingers to ruin our observations. Work on airborne astronomy flights is often so busy that there is very little time for even thinking about eating.
What happens if there is an emergency while the plane is flying?
On a commercial jetliner the flight crew, including flight attendants, assist passengers in the event of an emergency. SOFIA has a crew of three or four pilots, but no flight attendants, so anyone who flies on SOFIA must take safety training classes at NASA prior to flying. In those classes, which last a few hours each, we learn how to open and close the aircraft door and how to deploy the emergency slides if we have to evacuate the aircraft quickly. We also learn where all of the on-board fire extinguishers are, where the oxygen masks are, where the first aid kits are, and how to use them. The modifications left SOFIA with not as many places for the emergency oxygen masks that pop out of the ceilings of commercial jets if the cabin looses pressure. If SOFIA losses cabin pressure, we'll put on oxygen masks located near our work spaces and then wait for the pilots to fly to a lower altitude where the air is thick enough for us to breath.
Why do you wear headphones?
SOFIA only has a few seats and the floors are not carpeted all over like in a commercial jet. Seats and carpeting, not to mention all of the other passengers, absorb a lot of sound. That means that SOFIA is very loud even inside the pressurized cabin. Since we need to be able to talk with people sitting all over the aircraft during flights and observations, we all wear headphones with microphones on them. These help us talk to and hear everyone with out having to yell or get up and walk around the aircraft. We can also get updates and instructions from the flight crew if necessary.
How high does SOFIA fly?
SOFIA can fly to a maximum altitude of 13.7 km (about 45,000 feet), but most astronomical observations with be conducted at altitudes of about 12.5 km (41,000 feet). Under normal operating conditions, the telescope cavity will never be opened below 10.7 km (35,000 feet). This is to keep the telescope optics clean since most of the dust, moisture, and pollution in our atmosphere are located below 10.7 km. For comparison, most commercial aircraft cruise at 10.7 to 11.9 km.
Is it scary on SOFIA?
No, it's very exciting. The people who made the aircraft modifications and the people in charge of aircraft testing safety at NASA have worked very hard to insure the safety of people flying on SOFIA. It is just as safe as a regular commercial flight on a 747. However, when you first walk onto SOFIA it can be startling to see all of guts of the cabin exposed. Most of the white plastic molding and fixtures (like walls, overhead bins for carryon luggage, and even the low ceiling) have been removed on SOFIA to access the wiring and instruments that are normally hidden in a commercial jet aircraft. Here's a picture of what it looks like inside SOFIA. There are more at my Frequent Flyer photo gallery.
Do you have parachutes? 
Nope. Neither do the pilots. But I'm not worried.
Is there a bathroom?
Yes, the aircraft lavatory in the front of the airplane is available for all on board. The rest of the lavatories were removed to make room for the telescope. With only 10 or so people on board, though, I don't expect lines for the potty.
Got a question of your own? Leave a comment and I'll do my best to answer.

1 Comment

Nice! I'm a big fan of your blog . . .

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