design element
SOFIA banner  
news image top News and Updates   
news image bottom
design element


Home > News and Updates > NASA’S Airborne Observatory Sees “First Light” in Flight


NASA’S Airborne Observatory Sees “First Light” in Flight

Photos below

May 28, 2010

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a joint program by NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), achieved a major milestone May 26, 2010, when the airborne observatory made its first in-flight nighttime observations. Astronomers call the first observations by a new observatory “first light.”

"With this flight, SOFIA begins a 20-year journey that will enable a wide variety of astronomical science observations not possible from other Earth- and space-borne observatories," said Jon Morse, NASA's Astrophysics Division director. "It clearly demonstrates that SOFIA will provide us with "Great Observatory"–class astronomical science."

The highly modified Boeing 747SP jetliner, fitted with a 100-inch (2.5-meter) diameter reflecting telescope, took off from NASA’s Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, Calif. The in-flight personnel consisted of an international crew from NASA, Universities Space Research Association (USRA), the German SOFIA Institute (DSI) and Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. During the six-hour flight at altitudes up to 35,000 feet, the crew of 10 scientists, engineers and technicians worked at consoles in the aircraft’s main cabin to gather telescope performance data.

The results, according to NASA SOFIA project scientist Pam Marcum, were gratifying. “Wind tunnel tests and supercomputer calculations made at the start of the SOFIA program predicted we would have sharp enough images for front-line astronomical research; a preliminary look at the first light data indicates we indeed accomplished that,” said Marcum.

The stability and precise pointing of the German-built telescope met or exceeded the expectations of the engineers and astronomers who put it through its paces during the flight.

"The crowning accomplishment of the night came when scientists on board SOFIA recorded images of Jupiter at wavelengths unobservable by either ground-based observatories or current space telescopes," said USRA SOFIA senior science advisor Eric Becklin. “The composite image from SOFIA shows heat, trapped since the formation of the planet, pouring out of Jupiter's interior through holes in its clouds.”

The highly sensitive Faint Object infraRed CAmera for the SOFIA Telescope (FORCAST), used for these inaugural observations was operated in flight by its builders, a team led by Cornell’s Terry Herter. In a few minutes FORCAST is able to capture images that would require many-hour exposures by ground-based observatories blocked from a clear infrared view of the universe by the Earth’s water vapor. SOFIA’s operational altitude, above more than 99 percent of the water vapor in Earth’s atmosphere, will allow the airborne observatory to receive 80 percent or more of the infrared light accessible to a space observatory.

SOFIA is a joint program between NASA and the German Aerospace Center, Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR), Bonn, Germany. The SOFIA program is managed at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, Calif., and the aircraft is based at the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility, Palmdale, Calif. NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., manages the SOFIA science and mission operations in cooperation with the Universities Space Research Association (USRA), Columbia, Md., and the Deutsches SOFIA Institute (DSI), Stuttgart, Germany.

Nicholas A. Veronico
650-604-4589 or cell 650-224-8726


Cathy Weselby
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.

Beth Hagenauer
Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, Calif.

J.D. Harrington
Headquarters, Washington

For more information about SOFIA, visit:

For information about SOFIA's science mission, visit:

To see video of SOFIA in flight, visit:

Visible and Infrared Jupiter

Infrared image of Jupiter from SOFIA’s First Light flight composed of individual images at wavelengths of 5.4 (blue), 24 (green) and 37 microns (red) made by Cornell University’s FORCAST camera. Ground-based infrared observations are impossible at 5.4 and 37 microns and normally very difficult at 24 microns even from high mountaintop observatories such as Mauna Kea due to absorption by water and other molecules in Earth's atmosphere. The white stripe in the infrared image is a region of relatively transparent clouds through which the warm interior of Jupiter can be seen (NASA/SOFIA/USRA/FORCAST Team/James De Buizer). A recent visual-wavelength picture of approximately the same side of Jupiter is shown for comparison (Anthony Wesley). (Images are oriented with Jupiter's south pole at the top.)

View large image with labels | View large image without labels
Download pdf version with labels | Download pdf version without labels

Additional Images

Jupiter with different wavelengths

Jupiter data: FORCAST images were taken in three broadband filters with effective wavelengths of 5.4 µm, 24 µm, and 37 µm. The observing mode made use of the chopping secondary mirror operating with a two-position chop at 10 Hz plus nodding the telescope in an ABBA pattern. Data post-processing included: (1) removal of bad pixels and array pattern (correlated) noise, (2) applying a flat-field correction to remove the effects of pixel-to-pixel responsivity variation, (3) subtracting chop and nod image pairs to remove instrument, telescope and sky background signal, and (4) shifting and summing (coadding) multiple integrations to produce the final images. Each monochromatic image was then processed with a spatial filter to remove effects of telescope jitter and the telescope+camera point spread function. Finally, the three monochromatic images were combined into a red-green-blue color image.

Download Jupiter+M82 wavelength components pdf


Infrared Jupiter and moons

SOFIA image of Jupiter and three of the Galilean moons composed of multiple frames taken at wavelengths of 5.4, 24 and 37 microns with the FORCAST infrared camera (P.I. Terry Herter, Cornell University). These data and other measurements from SOFIA’s First Light flight show that the observatory aircraft and telescope were remarkably stable on their first night out. (NASA/SOFIA/USRA/FORCAST Team/James De Buizer) (Image is oriented with Jupiter's north pole at the top.)

View large image with labels | View large image without labels


Visible and Infrared M82

Composite infrared image of the central portion of galaxy M82, from SOFIA’s First Light flight, at wavelengths of 20 (blue), 32 (green) and 37 microns (red). The middle inset image shows the same portion of the galaxy at visual wavelengths. The infrared image views past the stars and dust clouds apparent in the visible-wavelength image into the star-forming heart of the galaxy. The long dimension of the inset boxes is about 5400 light years. Details of the infrared image processing are the same described in the caption for the Jupiter monochromatic images displayed above except that no spatial filter was applied to the M82 image. (Infrared image: NASA/SOFIA/USRA/FORCAST Team/Bill Vacca; Visual image: N. A. Sharp/ NOAO/AURA/NSF)

View large image with labels | View large image without labels
Download pdf version with labels | Download pdf version without labels



Page Last Updated: January 25, 2012


  design element
design element
design element
design element