The recently-retired Kuiper Airborne Observatory (KAO) gazed deep into the universe for twenty years. Unfortunately, it also occasionally just looked off into space. New technology will improve the quality of science done on the flying observatory's replacement, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). Automated balancing of the in-flight telescope will replace KAO's lengthy manual adjustment system when the Boeing 747 bearing the 2.5-meter telescope (the largest airborne astronomical observatory ever constructed) takes off in 2001.
This fall, SOFIA is undergoing detailed system design after evaluation of proposals for prime contracts for the Congress and NASA-approved program. Like its predecessor, SOFIA will be used for advanced astronomical observations at stratospheric altitudes in excess of 41,000 feet. The joint project of DARA (the German space agency) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) will support scientific research in infrared astronomy by accommodating installation of different focal plane length instruments provided by investigators from the international science community. SOFIA's automated balancing technology will allow more instrument changes. They will be able to do 160 science flights per year for the predicted 20-year life of the facility. This will accommodate 50 PI teams, and include about 80 instrument changeouts.
KAO, a C-141 based project, employed a highly-skilled technician to balance the telescope by trial and error before flight, and could not adjust for weight changes due to such things as cryogenics depletion during flight. SOFIA's efficiency will increase beyond KAO's with an automated control system that will both reduce the time required to balance the telescope on the ground, and dynamically balance the telescope in-flight. The DARA-provided telescope system, designed using pattern-recognition techniques, will be able to recognize the desired area of the night sky by comparing video input from the tracking camera with star charts. Dynamic balancing will improve pointing accuracy, increasing the quality of science produced on SOFIA. Further automation still being considered will also reduce costs in terms of how many people are necessary to keep the telescope on target.
SOFIA will provide an important platform for application of autonomous systems technologies like the one that will automatically re-balance the telescope. An example of technology to be tested on SOFIA is a pressure sensor that can be added as an afterthought to wings and airfoils, as opposed to current technology that requires construction of custom wings and airfoils, often at a cost upwards of a million dollars. The technology to be tested on SOFIA consists of light diffraction gratings whose line spacing will be affected by pressure. The wavelength of light reflected will indicate how much the line spacing has been altered by pressure changes. Such new technology will reduce pressure-sensing to several thousand dollars, as well as make installation easier. Measurements once rejected as too expensive will be taken.
Expanding on KAO's "Live from the Stratosphere" program, the Education and Outreach Office plans to expand SOFIA mission participation to include interested citizens like educators, students, the media, amateur astronomers, and people with scientific interests beyond astronomy who can use SOFIA for their observations. The program outline describes it as "as close to flying aboard the Space Shuttle as will ever experience." In addition, the Office requests public input to help design SOFIA, in the form of a 50 word essay describing what you would do if you could fly aboard SOFIA. Contact Bob Hillenbrand for further outreach information.