IC Students Who Worked on SOFIA

By Keith Davis

Over the past five years, six of Luke Keller’s students worked with him on both hardware and software that is currently being used on the SOFIA project.

Dan Varney ’06, physics, designed and built an optical test system used to measure the performance of several custom-made light filters designed for the FORCAST camera, in collaboration with scientists at the University of Texas at Austin. Varney’s design used an infrared laser and several lenses to focus light into the camera, simulating light coming from the SOFIA telescope, which at the time was not yet installed in the aircraft.

Nirbhik Chitrakar ’08, physics, spent his senior year helping design and code a new software package that allows astronomers to process and view FORCAST camera data while SOFIA is in flight. The software was part of a contract to Keller funded by the Universities Space Research Association. Chitrakar presented preliminary versions of his software at two NASA research team meetings, and the design was approved to continue to its final stages. After graduation, Chitrakar worked at Cornell University, writing data analysis software for the Spitzer Space Telescope and also for the FORCAST team, making additions to his SOFIA data analysis software. Chitrakar did graduate work in astronomy at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology and currently lives in Nepal.

Jordan Hyatt ’10 and Kevin Geidel ’10, physics majors, collaborated in continuing with Chitrakar’s design. Hyatt and Geidel helped Keller bring the software to its final stage. Hyatt is currently a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, stationed at Fort Lewis in Washington State. Geidel is living in northern California and plans to attend graduate school in medical physics.

Preston Barrows ’10, physics, worked on both the software (designing an algorithm that helps sharpen SOFIA images that have been blurred due to aircraft motion) and on the hardware (working with Keller and Cornell University mechanical engineer Chuck Henderson to design, prototype, and build a calibration system for the FORCAST camera). Barrows’s calibration box is used to ensure that the camera’s sensitivity to very faint astronomical light sources is maintained during SOFIA observations in flight. Barrows also assisted Keller on the optical design, completed the computer models and drawings of the mechanical system, and specified the custom fabrication of the instrument. During the summer of 2009, Barrows tested a prototype he built and then finalized his design before helping Henderson build the final product. The calibration box is now a permanent part of the FORCAST camera system and is used on all SOFIA/FORCAST flights. Barrows is currently in the applied physics graduate program at the University of Wisconsin.

During the summer of 2010, Josh Cheng ’13, physics, put the finishing touches on the FORCAST software package. The software was released to the general SOFIA research community in September 2010.