When research takes off

David Trilling
David Trilling
Photo courtesy NAU IDEA Lab

By David Trilling
Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy

Astronomers are always open to another point of view, and this one was pretty cool.

Recently, I flew on NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy, known as SOFIA: It’s a 747 airplane with a hole cut in the side, where a telescope looks out. And it’s probably the closest I’ll ever come to being an astronaut.

What I’m looking for is evidence of planetary systems around other stars, and SOFIA’s unique vantage point—from 41,000 feet, above almost all water in the Earth’s atmosphere—provides an unparalleled view.

It was a pretty amazing experience. I felt like we flew a telescope to space and back again. Our flight—with more than 20 technicians, engineers, pilots, some middle school teachers and just one lone astronomer on board—took off from Palmdale, Calif., flew toward Alaska and then far out over the Pacific Ocean before returning to base at the end of the night.

The observatory is an interesting mix of very high tech—the telescope itself and its operating systems are like what NASA flies in its space missions—and old school, since most of the plane hasn’t been updated since the 1970s, when it was built.

The observation I made was the first of a small survey of stars that Dave Koerner and I suspect have planetary systems, based on previous work that we carried out with the Spitzer Space Telescope and published in 2010. (Dave was the first author on this work.)

Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared AstronomySOFIA is the only existing observatory where we can make these critical measurements, and we are hoping to carry out a much larger project in the future. This project was a pilot program, to learn how the observatory works and how the data look. One of the main challenges was to try to explain my science experiment to the NASA pilots at four in the morning.

I would fly on SOFIA again if given the opportunity, but there is probably a long waiting list, since only a handful of scientists who are using data from the telescope have actually flown with the observatory.

For now, I’ll have to stick to more mundane matters, like analyzing the data. But it’s pretty fun to tell stories about riding in an airplane with a telescope inside.