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Earth Space Science

Boeing 747 Modified To Act As Infrared Telescope 85

Posted by timothy
from the watchers-above dept.
xyz writes "A joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center has developed a highly modified Boeing-747SP aircraft to carry a 2.5-meter (98.4 inch) infrared telescope. The project SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy) will observe radiation in the wavelengths from 0.3 microns to 1.0 millimeters, spanning the visible, infrared, and sub-millimeter portions of the electromagnetic spectrum. The observations will be taken at an altitude of 40,000 to 45,000 feet (12 to 14 km) which is above 99.8 percent of the water vapor in Earth's atmosphere, thus giving it a greater range of observations." Update: 10/31 13:27 GMT by T : Mea culpa -- headline changed to reflect that this telescope is intended for looking out at space rather than down at the Earth.
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Boeing 747 Modified To Act As Infrared Telescope

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  • by R2.0 (532027) on Friday October 31, 2008 @08:24AM (#25581785)

    Sounds like it would make a great surveillance platform, too. It's in the name of science, after all.

  • Earth-observing? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Scutter (18425) on Friday October 31, 2008 @08:26AM (#25581797) Journal

    Boeing 747 Modified To Act As Earth-Observing Telescope


    SOFIA is an airborne observatory that will study the universe in the infrared spectrum.

    So, by "Earth-observing", what you meant was "everything EXCEPT Earth", right?

    • by aliquis (678370)

      Does make sense to observe the earth THRU as much water as possible to if water amount matters.. Not.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by tomatensaft (661701)
      Author probably meant "Earth-based observing", although calling a Boeing 747 flying at 10-12 km above sea level "Earth-based" is kind of a stretch, even by Hubble telescope standards... :)
    • So, by "Earth-observing", what you meant was "everything EXCEPT Earth", right?

      No, he is suggesting "Flip Flop Flyin' in an Aeroplane" to make earth observations possible.

    • Good observation.
  • From the article:

    "The flying observatory will begin its short science, or 'first light' observations, in early summer 2009, and will continue its program of ***celestial observations*** for the next 20 years."

    • Might also want to change the title to reflect the fact that the telescope itself isn't the news. The article is about the selection of the first three researchers to be in charge of the instruments.

      The summary makes it sound like the SOFIA project itself is new. Rather, the project was first proposed in the 80's when NASA was still flying a relatively tiny 1 meter mirror on a C-141. It's been in development since 1996 and bounced up and down on NASA's priority list, contributing to the delays and cost g
  • Earth-observing? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by m50d (797211)
    If they were observing the Earth, surely it would be better to do it from below all that water vapor.
    • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

      Ummmm....TFS says they're using an infrared telescope. The water vapor shouldn't matter much, right? Especially since they're mostly trying to look at the atmosphere to study things such as global warming.

      • by Scutter (18425)

        Ummmm....TFS says they're using an infrared telescope. The water vapor shouldn't matter much, right? Especially since they're mostly trying to look at the atmosphere to study things such as global warming.

        They're not observing the Earth. It's a celestial telescope.

        • Okay, yeah, I went back actually RTFA (don't fall over from a heart attack now!) so misleading headline, bad summary, typical Slashdot claptrap. They definitely want to be above the water vapor. They'll be collaborating to study the center of the Milky Way, checking out gases, etc. My question is -- how is this different from Kuiper telescope in the early 70s that did more or less the same thing?

          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by michaelwv (1371157)
            It has a mirror that's more than two-and-a-half times larger, with correspondingly better resolution and sensitivity, and instrumentation that's several generations more advanced than Kuiper. Also, notably it will be flying and observing in the next decade and Kuiper hasn't flown since 1995. Science continues and new questions arise every day that need new observations to answer them.
      • by aliquis (678370)

        But if the water vapor didn't mattered why mention it at all? :D

        "Today I've answered to three Slashdot stories, but my breakfast was tea!"

      • by aproposofwhat (1019098) on Friday October 31, 2008 @08:52AM (#25581983)
        Sorry, Morgan, you're usually quite insightful, but water vapour is quite good at absorbing infra-red radiation - see here [] for some details.
        • The water vapor shouldn't matter much, right? Especially since they're mostly trying to look at the atmosphere to study things such as global warming.

          Sorry, Morgan, you're usually quite insightful, but water vapour is quite good at absorbing infra-red radiation - see here [] for some details.

          No. He simply assumed the title Timothy pasted onto it was correct and didn't bother to read the summary or TFA. Just like Timothy.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 31, 2008 @08:31AM (#25581845)

    Been there, done that, in 1974 even []

    • by mbone (558574)

      SOFIA is much more sensitive.

    • by ibm1130 (123012)

      Kuiper retired the best part of a decade ago IIRC. Even then SOFIA was in the works. Why is this suddenly news?

      • by N22YF (870358)
        True, the Kuiper Airborne Observatory (KAO) was retired in 1995 to free up funding for SOFIA. Work on SOFIA started in the 90s and it made its first flight with the telescope installed last year. SOFIA is a similar idea to KAO, but on a much larger scale (the telescope is 2.5 m in diameter, compared to 91.5 cm for the KAO) and representing a significantly larger engineering challenge.

        But yeah, I don't know why this is news now. Science flights aren't supposed to start taking place until next year.

  • ...switch the lights off just as you start the zero g, turn on the infra red on the video camera. Submit to funniest home videos. Win the home entertainment theatre prize. Think how much closer you'll be to funding your next orbital vehicle when you sell the prize!

  • Can someone please explain how airborne telescoped deal with all the vibration? I mean, I spill my drink every time I fly.
    • Can someone please explain how airborne telescoped deal with all the vibration? I mean, I spill my drink every time I fly.

      Telescopes don't know fear...

    • by andy19 (1250844)
      You're not drinking fast enough.
    • by ari_j (90255)
      Your drink doesn't have $10 million worth of shock-mounting. But even so, I'm curious about the same thing, as there is simply no way that this can compete with an orbital telescope as far as a smooth ride goes.
      • It competes VERY favorably with an orbital telescope in one key aspect: price.
        • by ari_j (90255)
          What are the actual numbers? An orbital telescope doesn't burn fuel while it's up there the way a 747 does, and it can take pictures continuously while it's up. But a 747 doesn't need a manned orbital flight to make repairs the way an orbital telescope does and doesn't even need repairs when unused the way an orbital telescope does. I'm sure that this weighs in favor of the 747 method, but by how much?
          • Ignoring maintenance (so far, I don't think many satellites have been repaired except for Hubble), an Atlas V rocket launch costs about $140M. A 747 costs about $150M to buy, more to customize for this application. The satellite is free to fly after launch, of course. A 747 costs about $27,000 per hour to fly - $230M/yr if flown continuously (which most airlines try to do - they are too expensive to have sitting on the ground).

            So, a satellite is way cheaper - even if you were to completely replace it eve

            • Shuttle flights run in the neighborhood of $400-500 million a pop. So far there have been 5 flights, the initial launch and 4 servicing flights. So that's $2-2.5 billion for the Hubble so far.

              That doesn't include the operating expenses. So far the U.S. has put in between $5-6 billion dollars, the ESA another $600 million euros. Satellites ain't cheap.
              • Well, yeah, but Rosat, Gamma, SARA, EUVE, Eureca, ASCA, Alexis, GGS-Wind, IRTS/SFU, Surfsat, ISO, Rossi, MSX, and 23 other satellite telescopes have been launched since Hubble - and yet only Hubble has been serviced in space. So I think the norm can be called as "no in space maintenance."

            • basically, the telescope must be a LOT cheaper than an equivalent satellite telescope.
              And it wouldn't surprise me if it was for one simple reason: reliability.

              If you are going to put something in space it has to be extremely reliable since the only way to service it is with a very expensive shuttle mission (if indeed you can service it at all). That means you spend a huge ammount of time and money checking, double checking, triple checking and so on. Of course backup systems are an option but over time if t

            • by RockDoctor (15477)

              The satellite is free to fly after launch, of course.

              Certainly it's free, as long as you don't do anything with the data that it sends down. That's both the imaging data and the engineering data. If you don't do that, and don't listen to it, then you don't need to build and maintain Earth-based reception stations to pick up the signals, nor pay for the ground-based (or satellite-based) network links to get the data to the researchers who aren't going to be looking at the data. you also won't need to pay for

              • About half of what you said would be needed for the 747 based satellite as well - analyzing the data, positioning, troubleshooting of software bugs, etc. Of the rest, most of it is performed by a third party (doesn't come out of your budget). (NASA/DOD watches all LEO objects over a certain size for free - they do not care about country of origin.)

                Some of what you said were real costs - like ground radio - are true additional costs. However, depending on the satellite design, these costs can be extremely

                • by RockDoctor (15477)

                  If you look closely, I think you'll find that the satellite itself (ammortized over the years, if you like) dominates the program cost - that's why this 747 idea makes sense. Non-satellite telescopes are just orders of magnitude cheaper.

                  That's not in dispute. (Except by whoever wrote "So, a satellite is way cheaper - even if you were to completely replace it every fews years." ; the spelling mistake should make it easy to locate the author.) But the original statement that "The satellite is free to fly afte

                  • Does it really matter ... whether the costs are borne by .. an Astronomy department

                    Well, it matters to the astronomy department ;-}

                    The tracking budgets are pretty small, and the incremental cost of adding one satellite to the tens of thousands being tracked is insignificant.

                    I guess I should have said a satellite launch is insignificant. What I really meant was that if you were using the same equipment either way, a satellite would be cheaper - the real difference is in the equipment.

                    I wonder how much the c

    • Re:Vibration? (Score:5, Informative)

      by tweak13 (1171627) on Friday October 31, 2008 @09:28AM (#25582259)
      It will probably be mounted on some kind of stabilized gimbal mount, much like the kind used to mount cameras to helicopters. A helicopter mount has to deal with probably 100x the vibration that a 747 in smooth air would have. Keep in mind they are going to not only be able to pick which days they fly, but pick the location as well. It won't be very hard for them to find good conditions. Example of helicopter mount here []
      • Re:Vibration? (Score:4, Interesting)

        by michaelwv (1371157) on Friday October 31, 2008 @09:59AM (#25582555)
        Vibration transferred from the plane is relatively straightforward to solve (although it can expensive to do it to tolerance). The biggest challenge that caused the most delay (years) for SOFIA was the layer of air that was happy to be going around the side of the plane and then suddenly sees a 3m gap in the side of the plane. This led to a significant amount of turbulence and both shaking of the telescope and degradation of the "seeing" (the sharpness of images through the atmosphere and optics; in this case the very local atmosphere). Significant redesign and careful consideration of the exact shape, baffling, etc. of the hold and telescope mount was necessary to overcome this problem.
        • by tweak13 (1171627)
          I didn't read the article when I posted that (are you surprised?) and thus didn't learn until later that they were basically chopping a hole in the aircraft for this assembly. That of course leads to many other considerations like controlling the turbulence as the boundary layer breaks up and not letting a resonance tear the entire aircraft apart. I guess I just assumed the telescope would fit in the aircraft and look through some sections of fuselage made transparent in IR.
          • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

            by michaelwv (1371157)
            Transparent in IR is relatively easy (although not necessarily all the way out to 500 microns). Not emitting in the IR is hard. You have to be very cold (3 degrees Kelvin would be good). Much colder then you'd like the skin of the plane to be. Obviously the air is not that cold, but it's much thinner and so doesn't emit nearly as much as a solid sheet of whatever transparent material you could think of.
            • by tweak13 (1171627)
              Interesting. My only experience with IR is IR photography, and pretty limited experience at that. So an IR filter for a camera is of course made to pass IR while blocking most visible light. I'm assuming this works because the IR range film captures is much shorter wavelength than what would be emitted by a filter at room temperature. I guess I never would have thought of radiation being an issue. Now I kinda wish I would have paid more attention in astrophysics class :-)
              • Yes exactly. For room-temperature (300 degrees K, 27 degrees C), the blackbody radiation peaks around 9-10 microns. IR in the context of CCD cameras is around 1 micron, so it's not that important to be colder than room temperature (although it's still helpful). If you want to observe at 10 microns then you would like to be down at perhaps 100 K (conveniently liquid nitrogen is at 77 K) and down to 3 K (liquid helium refrigeration) if you want to get out to 500 microns. See []
    • Re: (Score:1, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      There is a set of seven nitrogen-filled airbags with active controls to isolate as much as possible. The telescope itself is gyroscopically stabilized. And for the worrisome "dumbbell" flexure mode, there is an active image compensation calculation.

      It's MUCH more sophisticated than KAO was. As well as substantially larger.

    • Re:Vibration? (Score:5, Informative)

      by Quantos (1327889) on Friday October 31, 2008 @09:53AM (#25582487)
      This is taken from the SOFIA site.

      At visible wavelengths, it is neither atmospheric turbulence, the refractive action of mobile air cells which push light rays around, overhead (actually there is not much air left overhead) that causes the blurring problem, nor the aircraft and telescope shaking that causes the problem, but rather the "shear layer" stream of air shooting past the open airplane cavity where the telescope sits, at 500 mph. This air motion worsens the resolution (the opposite of blurring) to 3 arc secs at visible wavelengths.

      But the problem at the long wavelengths is different - it's diffraction. Basically, the far-infrared light observed by SOFIA passes through the shear stream of air unperturbed. But this light has such a long wavelength, 100x to 1000 times the wavelength of visible light, that the SOFIA telescope is of insufficient size to focus it sharply, and blurriness results. At wavelengths in the far-infrared, like 60 micrometers, there is significant blurring due to this effect. The telescope is actually held extremely steady while observing occurs, even in turbulence. It's held about as stable as a mountaintop telescope sitting on a 10 meter cement foundation, but diffraction still blurs the image.

      So how do you do this? First, you isolate the telescope from the airplane by mounting it on a spherical pressurized oil bearing. The plane shakes and quakes, but the telescope doesn't feel it. Second, you direct the wind away from the telescope by shaping the side of the airplane so as to deflect it, and install a little deflector fence on the edge of the telescope cavity as well. Third, you stabilize the telescope against sudden motion (wind does get through) by spinning three orthogonal gyroscopes which are rigidly attached to the structure, and fourth, you steer the telescope so as to keep it steady, by tracking a distant star and giving the telescope magnetical nudges to point it toward a fixed direction.
      • by vrmlguy (120854)

        Mod parent up!

        I spent several minutes perusing the SOPHIA site without finding this information. Looking at the pictures, I'd just about convinced myself that there was a large pane of glass covering the opening, even though I knew that it would cause some distortion. No doubt about it, SOPHIA needs a FAQ.

        So, I'm guessing that there's no one standing in the rear when they open the shutter?

        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          by Quantos (1327889)
          They have one, that's where I pulled that from. I just forgot to add the link.
          Here [] it is.
  • SOFIA looks up (Score:1, Redundant)

    by mbone (558574)

    Not down. It's not Earth observing, it's observing from Earth.

    Details, details.

  • by hcdejong (561314) <> on Friday October 31, 2008 @09:04AM (#25582063)

    The telescope will be exposed to the elements during flight: this photo [] of the telescope installation shows that the aircraft will be flying around with a 3x3 m hole in its fuselage.

    The buffetting and general vibration levels must be huge.
    here [] is how they plan to compensate.

    • by camg188 (932324)
      I'd like to see this compared to Hubble (but not enough to actually look it up). Seems like Hubble would have a less obstructed, steadier view, but SOFIA has got to be cheaper to operate and easier to maintain and upgrade.
      • by hcdejong (561314)

        From the link in my post:

        Q: Can SOFIA see the Lunar Module crash sites on the surface of the Moon and get a record of them for history?

        A: You asked if SOFIA can see very detailed features on the surface of the Moon. The short answer is "No - such features are too small."

        Here is the long answer: The best resolution (ability to see fine detail) of any of the world's telescopes is about a tenth of an arc second (explained below). This is achieved by the Hubble Space Telescope. (This statement applies only to telescopes that use visible light and make images or photographs.) The next best telescopes are the Keck Telescopes in Hawaii and some telescopes in Chile. These can see details about three tenths of an arc second. SOFIA does not do as well as these telescopes, seeing details of one or two arc seconds at the very best.

      • by MRe_nl (306212)

        Also, re: comparisson with Hubble (or other spacecraft), from an earlier article;
        "We can do follow-up spectroscopic work with more complex instrumentation that is simply too heavy and too expensive to put aboard a spacecraft," says Eric Becklin, SOFIA chief scientist and director-designate for the University Space Research Association (USRA). USRA will manage SOFIA's science operations for NASA."

        Allthough I have to wonder, what would be too expensive to put aboard a spacecraft?

        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          by michaelwv (1371157)
          I think by "too expensive" he means that there are instruments that work 80% of the time but need to be (kicked | disassembled | mucked around with) occasionally. Making these instruments 10x lighter, 98% reliable, and with no need for outside intervention might be one to two orders of magnitude more expensive to develop for a spacecraft that you never get to touch again (or that you have to pay ~$500 million for each repair). So an instrument that was $10 million is now several hundred million dollars.
        • by icebrain (944107)

          Perhaps he meant that modifying the equipment to go on a spacecraft would be too expensive. Lots of things are quite cheap here on earth, but getting them space-rated and qualified, and light enough to be launchable, costs a lot of money.

      • by mbone (558574)

        They operate in different wavelength bands - Hubble is not an long-wave IR telescope. The space analogy for SOFIA is the 85 centimeter Spitzer [] telescope.

        These telescopes operate in the IR so their wavelengths are longer and thus their resolutions are poorer for a given size telescope.

        Here are the numbers [] :

        So the score card is: Hubble 0.1 Arc Sec (best); Keck 0.3 Arc Sec many other telescopes are doing as well as the Keck; SOFIA greater than 2.0 arc sec

        Note that radio Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI)

    • I don't think there are all THAT many elements up where this thing will be observing. Some to be sure, but above 99.8% of the water.
    • by PPH (736903)
      Its been done before here [].
  • Cobra Ball []

    is an Air Force airborne intelligence platform (RC-135) which carries infrared telescopes for tracking ballistic-missile tests at long range. COBRA BALL operates out of Offutt AFB NE and deploys to various locations around the world.

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