SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) is a joint venture between NASA and the German space agency, DLR, involving the use of a modified Boeing 747SP aircraft as an airborne astronomical observatory. Edward Austin is the SOFIA Science and Mission Operation Project Manager.
NASA Tech Briefs: You are currently the science project manager for the SOFIA, which stands for Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy.
Edward Austin: That's correct. About a year ago the SOFIA program was split. Originally there was a single program and all of the project and program work was done under just the program managers. Now the program manager is at Dryden and underneath that there are two projects that make up SOFIA during the completion of development and during its operational life. There's what we call the "platform project," which is the aircraft engineering and development and flight testing at Dryden, and then we have the science project – SOFIA being a science project – I manage the development of the science systems and science center, actually, development and maintenance of the science vision and implementation of that vision at Ames.
NTB: Exactly what does NASA hope to accomplish with the SOFIA project?
Austin: Well, a lot of what we get astronomically in terms of our observations, people are familiar with - visible light, images and what-not. The real product we're getting from the infrared part of the spectrum is that you can actually observe black holes and phenomenon through dark clouds. A lot of things that are obscured in the galaxy that we would want to see visibly, you can't see. So we can use infrared and we can penetrate all kinds of obscurations and we can look at black holes and star forming regions in the center of the galaxy and stuff. You can actually determine molecular composition of regions of stars and planet formation; in looking at what are called occulations, we can probe the sizes, atmospheres, and possible satellites of Kuiper Belt objects and newly discovered planet-like objects in the outer solar system.
The benefit that makes SOFIA very unique is a great deal of the infrared spectrum is actually blocked by water vapor in the earth's atmosphere. So the benefit of putting a telescope on an aircraft is that you can get above 99-percent or so of the water vapor in the atmosphere. If you're flying an infrared telescope around at 37,000 to 45,000 feet, there are a lot of things that you can now begin to observe that you cannot possibly observe on a ground-based telescope from the highest mountains. That's what's really kind of unique.
Obviously we've got the Spitzer space telescope, and there are other space- based observatories…
NTB: Like the Hubble and the proposed James Webb Space Telescope, which would be another infrared telescope?
Austin: Exactly! You've got Herschel [Space Observatory] and there are a bunch of space-based programs that, of course, don't deal with any water vapor at all, but again, the benefit of SOFIA is the kind of instrumentation we take off and land with every day. We can swap out state-of- the-art science instruments and state-of-the-art infrared detectors that are really geared for looking at particular kinds of phenomenon and hopefully obtaining specific kinds of science results. You can't do that so easily on a space-based platform. It's extremely expensive to go service Hubble.