Being an astronomer is wonderfully exciting. I investigate the formation of planetary systems across the galaxy by studying various molecules in the gas and ice that swirl around forming stars. My work has taken me to the Keck Observatory, home of the world’s largest ground-based optical telescope, atop Hawaii’s Mauna Kea.
A new turn occurred in March, when I was given the rare opportunity to fly aboard the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) and use an infrared instrument to observe sulfur –a key element in early planetary chemistry, and one that is difficult to observe with other telescopes – in the gas around a massive forming star about 2,000 light years from Earth. Reaching an altitude of 45,000 feet, SOFIA flies above much of the water vapor that can plague observations made from ground-based facilities.
This trip was far from my typical research experience. Once NASA approved me for the flight, I traveled to NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, in Palmdale, Calif., where SOFIA is housed. Badging was followed by “egress training,” which involved learning various safety measures – from oxygen masks to life-vests to waterproof radios that can track your location within 80 feet from anywhere in the world. Before the flight, observing and flight-path details were outlined in a mission team briefing. Finally, just before sunset on March 21, we boarded SOFIA for our roughly 10-hour flight into the stratosphere.
Originally named the Clipper Lindbergh back in 1977, SOFIA has been transformed into the world’s largest airborne observatory after NASA acquired the plane in 1997. Its unique 2.5-meter reflecting telescope is housed in a sealed compartment separated from the fuselage. It is opened remotely through an outside door at an altitude of 30,000 feet.
Inside SOFIA, it is immediately clear that it is no ordinary airplane. Familiar seating has been replaced by computer stations; the long tube connecting the telescope to the instruments looms at the front of the main cabin. Due to engine noise, on-board communication takes place through headsets through which multiple channels of conversation can be accessed.
My SOFIA experience was an astronomical adventure in the truest sense, beginning with ascending a spiral staircase to sit in the cockpit during takeoff, and ending with amazing new data we are now eagerly reviewing. This flight was the closest I’ve come to connecting with the stars, the mysterious tracers of our earliest beginnings.
Rachel Smith is head of the Astronomy & Astrophysics Research Lab at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences and is an assistant professor in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at Appalachian State.