“Is SOFIA the Van Gogh of the 21st century?” – NASA, DLR and USK*
On 29th January 2021 while we as the students of Ursuline School were still homeschooled Miss Klar drew our attention to an amazing opportunity. We were supposed to take part in an one-hour- video conference with scientists from not only the DLR, who most of us are well acquainted with through partnerships and other connections, but also from the NASA. The topic: The German-American Project SOFIA, short for Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy.
Soon, many students from grade 11 and 12 came together to participate and our first prep meeting together with Miss Klar took place on 19th February 2021. In that meeting we got to know each other better as a group and did some research for more information on Sofia, NASA and the DLR as independent organizations and the long journey of trial and error that has led to the telescope which is used today.
And then the day came: OnMarch 05 at 17:30 CET we joined the meeting withother interested students from the United States and the scientists in California: Naseem Rangwala, SOFIA Project Scientist, Alessandra Roy, SOFIA Program Scientist, Michael Hütwohl, SOFIA Telescope Lead and DSI Team Lead ARFC and Dr. Nicole Karnath, SOFIA Instrument Scientist.
Our first speaker, Naseem Rangwala, started the video conference off with explaining what SOFIA is. An old commercial airplane was converted into a flying observatory containing an infrared telescope to explore black holes, comets, asteroids and galaxies while flying high up in the Stratosphere. A major role in those explorations are molecular activities because “without infrared we only know half the story” as they are the fundamental essence of life.
SOFIA flies at an altitude of 45,000 feet (13716 meters) and observes the molecular activities in detail as well as the magnet fields close to us through one of the five different instrumentsthe infrared telescope contains. Astrophysically speaking, “close to us” means 1 billion light years. SOFIA is the only one of its kind in that regard. As a converted plane with a 2.5 meters mobile telescope, SOFIA cannot only be used in the Northern hemisphere but also flies to New Zealand annually to observe activities in the Southern hemisphere.
A very interesting discovery and major scientific breakthrough was made during the lockdown in 2020: While testing SOFIA’s capacities, the NASA found water molecules on the sunlit surface of the moon. It was overwhelming because it had a huge impact “both, scientifically and talking to the public and taking their minds away during the corona lockdown”. The molecule found is “specifically unique” since the conditions in the Clavius Crater “are so harsh”. The water makes up one liter per cubic meter and makes scientists wonder how much more there is. Furthermore, SOFIA discovered the very first molecule of the universe, Helium Hybrid, with the help of a German instrument.
While the first idea for SOFIA came up in 1962, it took several years to complete the project. In 1966 Germany and the USA started collaborating with the goal to develop a bigger telescope to explore molecular activities in interstellar space. The USA contribute 80% of the total amount of work and Germany 20% according to Michael Hütwohl who is responsible for the telescope. NASA purchased an aircraft in 1997 which is about 20 meters shorter than the average passenger machines. This offers new opportunities, such as an optimized speed of 560mph at an altitude of 45,000 feet. The first flight at daytime took place in May 2010 and since 2014 SOFIA works regularly flying 130 times per year.
The aircraft contains many technological instruments. The telescope is made of a Primary Mirror with a diameter of Ø2.7 m, a Secondary Mirror, a Tertiary Mirror and an aperture with a diameter of Ø2.5 meters. The telescope collects data from a range of 23°-58° on the left side of the machine only which is why SOFIA must often fly in strange and unusual patterns. Considering the speed and altitude SOFIA flies at, it is quite a challenge with a pointing stability of 0.2 arsec. However, we were assured that opening the door for the telescope would not cause any problems at all. The light waves are reflected by the Primary Mirror to the Secondary Mirror which mirrors them to the Tertiary Mirror. This mirror reflects them to the Focal Point from which they are transferred to the different instruments. Then they collect and process the data.
Nicole Karnath explained that every mission is based on a three step plan: Planning – Execution = Observation – Pass along final data sets. One must always consider the time needed for the achievements and goals. There are several instruments on board. Each one is unique in its own way and contributes to collection data, however important or unimportant it might be, because “all collected data is important. It might not hold much significance right now, but it might revolutionize the world in a couple of years.”. EXES, HAWC+, GREAT, FORCAST and FIFI-LS are the five instruments which allow the exploration of interstellar space. EXES for example detects molecules which answer questions to the formation of planets, e.g. our earth. HAWC+ investigates black holes and how stars are forming as well as the vacuum space between galaxies – which is indeed not as empty as one might assume: Interstellar dust and gases are very important for answering questions. FORCAST was the instrument that detected water on the moon. Different filters allow it to absorb different light ways which gives us information on stars: How many are there? How fast are they forming? And, and, and…
Moreover, there is also a crew on board: Pilots, Mission Directors, Safety Technicians, Instrument Scientists/Operators, Telescope Operators and Airbone Ambassadors. But that is not all: NASA offers about 150 teachers to fly with SOFIA every year to experience SOFIA in action.
During the conference and at the end we had the opportunity to ask questions. We learned that SOFIA can also give further information about our problems nowadays: it can provide information regarding climate change but it is also interesting for scientists as it is for teachers and students. Added to that, SOFIA can act during catastrophes helping to solve issues by collecting data. We learned about practical aspects of SOFIA, as well, e.g. that it takes about one day to dissemble and reassemble the different instruments used for the telescope. Many calculations made opening the door during the flight possible.
All in all, the talk was more than just exciting. All students followed the captivating conversation and listened to the speakers’ talks. The students also showed their interests in the dialogues and the exchange of succeeding questions.
“All science is good science. SOFIA is making huge strides in many areas of astronomy and we’re proud of all of them.” – Margaret McAdam, Associate Project Scientist for SOFIA
If you want to learn more about SOFIA you can do so by having a look at NASA’s official website for it: