NASA and German Aerospace Centre (DLR) probably got hooked and constructed SOFIA, a 17-tonne observatory mounted on a modified Boeing 747SP

First in the line came telephones, then arrived mobile phones. Likewise, first came the giant warehouse-size computers and now, we have slim and light laptops. For technology aficionados, anything is better when it can be portably carried around.
NASA and German Aerospace Centre (DLR) probably got hooked on to this concept and constructed the Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a 17-tonne observatory mounted on a modified Boeing 747SP.

SOFIA is currently undergoing modifications and overhaul at Hamburg after it had formally completed all the development works on 29 May, 2014. It is expected to be operational by Fiscal 2015.

The carrier for the telescope is a Boeing 747SP (S-Special, P-Purpose) which was first brought into service in 1977. Pan Am Airlines and then United Airlines operated it until it was sold to NASA.

NASA cherry – picked the German carrier Lufthansa Technik for maintenance since now Boeing itself does not offer support for this aircraft. The aircraft has a shorter fuselage enabling it to fly at an altitude of 12-14 Km, higher than normal commercial aircraft. At such an high altitude, IR radiations can be studied which is not possible on ground observatories since water vapour blocks most of the infrared waves.

Special modifications were made – modified cockpit electronics, very extensive additional electronic systems and perhaps the trademark of this unique aircraft- a 4-by-6 meter door in the fuselage which opens when the telescope is in operation.

The 2.5 meter infrared reflector telescope on this aircraft has an oversized 2.7 meter diameter primary mirror. The scientific instruments currently aboard the plane are: FLITECAM, a near infrared camera covering 1–5 micrometres; FORCAST, covering the mid-infrared range of 5–40 micrometres, and HAWC, which spans the far infrared in the range 42–210 micrometres, FIFI-LS (Field-Imaging Far-Infrared Line Spectrometer) and the GREAT spectrometer.

These will be used to study the development of galaxies and how stars and planetary systems are formed from molecular and dust clouds. The German SOFIA Institute (DSI) at the University of Stuttgart will pool in the maintenance of the telescope. After the Hamburg overhaul, SOFIA will be resuming operations in 2015 with approximately 100 planned observation flights per year. The astronomy fraternity hopes that SOFIA, a truly unique tool, will serve them well in years to come.


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