NASA Social At NASA Armstrong (Palmdale – Part One)

For my third NASA Social, I was part of the national “all hands on deck” event for the “State Of NASA” speech by NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden. There were simultaneous events at ten NASA centers around the country. I went back to NASA Armstrong (posts for previous NASA Armstrong events here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), but this time instead of being at Edwards Air Force Base we were at their satellite facility at Palmdale Airport.

All of the NASA centers were connected for Administrator Bolden’s speech, while each of the ten NASA centers then had presentations which highlighted some of their specialties. For example, at NASA Stennis in Mississippi, they showed off their facilities for testing rocket engines. At NASA Johnson in Houston, they highlighted the International Space Station mock-ups and training facilities. Locally here, at NASA JPL the attendees learned about the various “icy bodies” spacecraft, including Dawn which is approaching Ceres, and New Horizons which will fly by Pluto later this year.

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At NASA Armstrong, first of all it was great to see friends that I’ve made at previous NASA Socials. Running the NASA Socials at NASA Armstrong are Kate Squires (in red) and Kevin Rohrer (on right, talking to Kate). They did a fantastic job!

Being on the west coast, we were three hours behind all of the east coast Socials. We had a few introductory comments, all got attached to the wi-fi and started charging our mobile devices (there is no such thing as too many charging opportunities at a NASA Social), introduced ourselves, then watched Administrator Bolden’s speech from Florida.

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Following the national speech, NASA Armstrong Director David McBride gave us a review of the budget data specific to what’s happening at NASA Armstrong. If you’re interested, you can download a PDF of his slides here.

The rest of the day was full of a whole slew of presentations and tours to see flying hardware up close and personal. In picking and preparing pictures for this article I see that there are too many for one post, so I’ll post the second part on Friday. (Tomorrow and Thursday are already committed to other posts.)

In addition, I’ll remind everyone again that I was Tweeting like crazy (my thumbs were on fire!) with even more pictures, wisdom, and insight delivered in 140 characters or less. You can either see that over in the sidebar on the right (if you’re on a desktop browser) or you can find me on Twitter as “@momdude56”.

Today, I’ll talk about the unquestioned star of the show — SOFIA, the Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy.

IMG_3283 (small)There she is! A heavily modified 747-SP, operated in cooperation with the German Aerospace Center (DLR – Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt). In fact, she just got back to the US and resumed astronomical observations in the last month or so after an extensive period of maintenance and upgrades performed in Germany.

The concept is simple on paper. You can see many different things in astronomy by looking at the sky in different wavelengths than visible light. Radio telescopes, X-ray telescopes, gamma ray telescopes, infrared telescopes — they all see a different sky by looking in different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. Combining all of those different views lets us know far more about the universe than by simply looking in the visible spectrum, which is a tiny portion of the entire spectrum.

The problem with infrared astronomy (and others listed) is that some types of light are absorbed by our atmosphere. The light we’re looking for simply doesn’t make it to the ground. In the case of infrared radiation, it’s absorbed by the water vapor in the atmosphere.

If you could get above that water vapor, you could see the infrared radiation. Outer space is ideal since it’s above 100% of the water vapor, but it’s hard to get there, expensive, and once you’re there you can’t fix or upgrade things. But what if you could get above 99% of the water vapor? Say, by flying at 40,000 feet or so. Then you could also upgrade and change and repair things as needed every time the plane lands.

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Thus was SOFIA born. See that bulge in the body just ahead of the aircraft tail? That bulge contains a huge roll-up door that can open when the plane’s flying at altitude. Why would any sane person want to open a huge door in the side of a 747 at 40,000 feet? In order to expose the 2.5 meter, 19-ton high-precision infrared telescope that’s sitting in there, of course!

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Here we’re getting a rundown on how SOFIA was modified. (I’m sorry, I didn’t catch the name of our presenter – perhaps Kate Squires will read this and drop the information into the comments? Hi, Kate!)

One of the critical side effects of opening a gaping hole in the side of an airplane at 40,000 feet is that anyone inside would be sucked out to a horrible, terrifying fall to their death. Scientists and engineers (as well as OSHA and NASA) frown upon such situations, so just forward of the telescope is a pressure bulkhead, allowing everyone on board to comfortably (and safely) run the telescope and collect their data.

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Then we got to not just ogle SOFIA from the outside, but to go inside and see how she works in detail.

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While the seats are comfy, first-class sized seats (the typical size of the crew for a flight is only forty or so), there’s no in-flight entertainment other than what you bring yourself. Despite my enthusiasm for the idea of flying in SOFIA, I’m told that the technicians, engineers, and scientists are busy gathering data, it’s night, it’s a long flight (typically most of the night), and if you’re not doing something, it can be pretty boring. (I would love to have the chance to judge that for myself!)

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Up front, the passengers share space with banks of computers and data collection hardware. A good night of observing can generate many terabytes of data.

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In back, you get all of the consoles that control the telescope once SOFIA’s on station and at altitude.

You might ask yourself (correctly) how you can keep a telescope pointed accurately at a star while in a plane. We’ve all been in planes, and even on a calm flight there’s a bit of rocking and rolling, minor turbulence, bumps and jiggles. Yet SOFIA is accurate to one-half of an arc-second. (That’s the size of a nickle seen at a distance of five miles.) How can that be?

Well, the telescope optics, despite weighing 19 tons, float freely, independent of the plane. They float on a bed of oil and then there are servos and motors that detect the motion of the plane and instantly move the telescope in the opposite direction. The plane bounces around as it flies, but the telescope stays locked on its target like a laser.

The result of this (I’m told) is that the telescope is a wonder to watch when you’re flying. To you, bouncing along with the plane, it looks like the telescope is twitching and shaking constantly. But that’s relative. In reality, you’re twitching and shaking, the telescope is rock solid in staring at its target.

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So what does this wonder look like? Like a dream!

Here you can see the pressure bulkhead, with the back end of the telescope (the blue part) sticking out into the cabin. On the other side, the one-hundred inch diameter mirror (okay, 2.5 meters) is in its framework, with a series of mirrors that take the light gathered and send it into the centerline of back end here.

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Up close, you can see several instruments being run by Cornell University attached. There are six different instruments that can be attached, with dozens of combinations.

In addition, around the rim you can see blue plates that are bolted on. These balance the telescope and are changed as instruments are changed. When balanced, despite weighing 19 tons, the telescope can easily be moved by hand.


So, yeah, you may have noticed that I thought that seeing SOFIA was pretty great. (That would be completely accurate.)

But wait, there’s more! On Friday I’ll have more pictures and information on seven other programs we heard about, some of which have the potential to be even more spectacular than SOFIA in ten to twenty years. Remember, “aeronautics” is “The First A In NASA,” and that’s what NASA Armstrong does.

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