Magazine article PM Network

Out of Sight

Magazine article PM Network

Out of Sight

Article excerpt


Budget cuts and culture clashes may keep scientists from new solar discoveries.

IT SOUNDS LIKE SCIENCE FICTION: a project to convert a Boeing 747 SP into a Large Airborne Telescope that astronomers will use for an enhanced view of infrared radiation from outer space.

Devised in the mid-1970s, initiated about a decade later and originally scheduled for completion in 2002, Project SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) is meant to give scientists access to the infrared light caused by astronomical events such as the birth of young stars in the early universe and the formation of planets from dust around stars. This light, instrumental to finding information about fundamental cosmic processes and detecting extra-solar planets, is invisible from ground-based telescopes. Using the revamped Boeing could change everything.

Flying at altitudes of approximately 41,000 feet (12,500 meters), SOFIA'S sensors will observe the sky at wavelengths between 0.35 and 655 µm, providing an undisturbed view from a position on top of 99 percent of the water vapor that blocks views via traditional telescopes.

Project SOFIA is a joint effort sponsored by the U.S. space agency NASA, which is picking up 80 percent of the costs, and Germany's DLR, which took on the remaining 20 percent. Private companies from both countries are contributing assembled components as well as ongoing service.

An important milestone was achieved in September 2002 when the almost nine-foot (2.7 m) telescope system was delivered from Germany to the assembly site in Waco, Texas, USA. According to earlier plans, SUFIA should have been operational by that time, but budget cuts on both sides of the Atlantic and organizational challenges caused by a large number of diverse stakeholders made repeated rescheduling necessary, says Oliver F. …

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