Inside NASA’s Giant Flying Telescope On Board a 747 (Video)

Mar 17, 2017

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When they’re not in space, telescopes work best at altitude. Some of the world’s most prominent land-based telescopes — from the Mauna Kea observatories in Hawaii to the research centers scattered throughout Chile’s mountains and Atacama Desert —  sit far from population centers, often far above sea level. Scientists and engineers have deliberately chosen these sites to minimize light pollution and the distorting effects that Earth’s atmosphere has on incoming light from across the universe.

In this week’s crazy aviation video, we take you to a high-flying observatory onboard a modified, stubby looking Boeing 747SP operated jointly by NASA and German space agency DLR.  Based out of Palmdale, California, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, known as SOFIA, is roughly the same size as the famous Hubble Space Telescope, but serves a different purpose. Unlike Hubble, SOFIA records infrared light from space objects to provide scientists a clearer picture of our galaxy and, specifically, the gaseous materials that form stars.

Chief SOFIA Scientist Eric Becklin explains the functionality of this awesome piece of research technology. So, how does it work? The team built a custom door on this 747 that opens mid-air to give the telescope a clear sightline to the skies above. Besides providing valuable data for scientists, the project has given new life to a 45+ year-old aircraft that once flew for airlines such as Pan Am and United. We’re all for it.

Have you visited an observatory or seen this special 747 before?

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