Can you tear an 8-foot hole in the side of a 747 jet and have it fly not only safely but in a stable way? This isn’t a terrorism-related quiz–it’s a real problem that NASA tackled with its flying telescope project. The answer is a big “yes.”
The telescope is a 17-ton monster called the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) designed to make high-resolution infrared imagery of space objects, and its installation in a modified 30-year-old 747 is the culmination of a project that began over 14 years ago. The telescope was specifically engineered to fit into a jumbo, which was the largest aircraft flying at the project’s inception, and it’s used to make observations when the plane is flying at 40,000 feet, lower than space-based telescopes but above some of the lower-atmospheric effects of the impact ground-based telescope installations.
This is why SOFIA is a neat solution, it turns out. At ground level, IR telescopes suffer from absorption of IR wavelengths by atmospheric water, and while this problem isn’t suffered if you shoot a satellite into space–you can’t adjust a space-based telescope easily (or at all, possibly for decades when the Shuttle is grounded) and flying a giant telescope into orbit is both tricky and expensive.
But how do you mount a 17-ton piece of kit in the rear of a 747, and cut an 8-foot hole in the side for it to see through without the hole bringing the aircraft crashing out of the sky, or cause airflow buffeting which would disrupt or damage the telescope? With clever modeling, and the construction of a bulge with a huge garage door to contain the telescope in an unpressurized environment, it turns out. The results are so successful that when the door is opened there seems to be little effect on the aircraft’s performance from a pilot’s point of view, and the telescope is delivering excellent results.
In an era where NASA’s missions are under a political and financial microscope, and many grand projects are dissolving into controversy, SOFIA’s a fabulous example of scientific ingenuity in action.
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