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Flying Telescope Makes An Out-Of-This-World Find : NPR

October 1, 2011
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Astronomers are lining up to use a powerful new NASA telescope called SOFIA. The telescope has unique capabilities for studying things like how stars form and what’s in the atmospheres of planets.

But unlike most of the space agency’s telescopes, SOFIA isn’t in space — it flies around mounted in a Boeing 747 jet with a large door cut on the side so the telescope can see out. Putting a telescope in space makes sense: There’s no pesky atmosphere to make stars twinkle. But why put one on a plane?

One reason is that the plane lands every day, says Alycia Weinberg, an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution for Science. She’s in charge of planning observations on SOFIA, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy. Weinberg says those daily landings let researchers fix things or upgrade instruments. With no more space shuttle missions, fixing telescopes in space ranges from nearly impossible to impossible.

Another reason a flying telescope makes sense is that at 45,000 feet, you’re above most of the moisture in the atmosphere. For astronomers, that’s important, because water vapor makes viewing the sky at infrared wavelengths impossible.

Like sounds that are too low or too high for our ears to hear, infrared wavelengths are light that the human eyeball can’t see. But they’re there, and Weinberg says lots of things glow at infrared wavelengths like “the cocoons of dust that old stars give off as they go through their final stages of life.” Those cocoons of dust are where new stars come from.

More:

http://www.npr.org/2011/10/01/140877924/flying-telescope-makes-an-out-of-this…

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