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The Webfooted Astronomer - August 1999

 

SOFIA: An Opportunity for Amateur Astronomers and Teachers

by Mary Anderson

Many amateur astronomers would avidly welcome an "extraterrestrial" opportunity to work closely with scientists in exploring the formation of galaxies, black holes, proto-planetary disks, and other mysteries of the universe. As presented by Mike Bennett in one of the best of the AstroCon 99 sessions, NASA’s SOFIA, Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, appears to offer this rare opportunity to a limited number of amateur astronomers and teachers. Mr. Bennett, who works for NASA as Director of Education and Public Outreach for the SOFIA project, described SOFIA in detail and then invited any interested amateur astronomers or teachers to register now on NASA's Web site in order to receive an application to participate in the SOFIA project.

Scheduled to begin operation in 2002, SOFIA is a next generation airborne observatory, similar to but more advanced than the Kuiper Airborne Observatory, which began operation in 1974. SOFIA, featuring a 2.5-meter telescope that will peer out at the infrared region through an open cavity in the side of a highly modified Boeing 747, will operate at an altitude of at least 41,000 feet, which will allow it to avoid 99% of obscuring atmospheric water vapor. Because this water vapor absorbs most emanations in the infrared spectrum, even the largest and highest ground based telescopes can detect only a limited portion of the nearly unlimited infrared spectrum that will be highly accessible to SOFIA. SOFIA astronomers will obtain sharper infrared images than ever before.

Presently the SOFIA telescope is being built by a consortium of Germany's leading aerospace companies. The 2.5-meter primary mirror for the Cassegrain telescope with Nasmyth focus is at a location near Paris for final light weighting and polishing. The 352 mm secondary mirror will be made from SiC material and aluminum coated. A tertiary mirror will consist of two flat exchangeable mirrors, dichroic (gold-coated) and non-dichroic (aluminum-coated). With a focal ratio of 19.6, the SOFIA telescope will offer a non-vignetted field of view of 8 arc minute.

The future for SOFIA and for the fortunate astronomers, technicians, engineers, and educators selected to work with SOFIA looks bright. Beginning with the first flight in the fall of 2002, SOFIA's life expectancy will be at least 20 years. Each year 160 scheduled flights will provide a total observation time per year of 960 hours. All personnel will work in a comfortable airliner environment during a typical eight-to-nine hour flight, including six hours of observation each day. SOFIA will be based at NASA's Ames Research Center in California, whose ground facility will house all personnel, including the lucky amateur astronomers and teachers selected to work aboard SOFIA.

Anyone who is interested in becoming one of those lucky astronomers or who would like more information should visit the SOFIA Web site at http://sofia.arc.nasa.gov. To register for an application for the Flight Opportunities for Educators and Amateur Astronomers Program, just click on the education link at the Web site or go to http://sofia-usra.arc.nasa.gov/education/mail/.

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