3.2 Scheduling and Flight Planning

Scheduling and flight planning will be handled by the SMO staff and is not the responsibility of the GI. However, an understanding of the flight planning process and the restrictions inherent to airborne astronomy may be useful in preparing a successful proposal.

The most distinctive aspect of SOFIA flight planning is the interdependency of the targets observed in a flight. Because the azimuthal pointing is controlled primarily by the aircraft heading and because, in normal operations, the take-off and landing air fields are the same, efficient flight plans must generally balance East-bound with West-bound flight legs and South-bound with North-bound legs. This also means that for any flight only a limited fraction of the observing can be performed in a given region of the sky. An example of a flight plan flown during Basic Science in May 2011 is shown in Figure 3-1 below. Several more examples of flight plans flown during Basic Science can be found on the Information for Researchers Flight Plans web page.

Basic Science flight plan

Figure 3-1: This is a sample flight plan flown in May 2011 during Basic Science. The take-off and landing were both from Palmdale, CA. Each leg is labeled with a time stamp and observing target when appropriate. Flight legs shown in black were ''dead legs'' during which no target was observed. The orange and yellow outlines indicate airspace with varying degree of restrictions which add to the complexity of designing efficient flight plans.

For the proposer this leads to several considerations:

  • A strong scientific case must be made for observations with rigid time constraints or strict cadences in order to justify the restrictions they will impose on flight planning.
  • Because the sky distribution of targets typically proposed for SOFIA observations (centered on the Galactic plane and certain regions of star formation, including Orion) is highly inhomogeneous, targets in areas that complement these high-target-density regions will allow more efficient flight planning and will likely have a higher chance ‒ for a given scientific rating ‒ to be scheduled. Consequently, it may be advantageous for those who can choose between targets from a large source pool for their SOFIA proposals and for those who plan to submit survey proposals to emphasize sources from complementary regions.
  • For example, objects that complement the potentially popular Orion molecular clouds include circumpolar targets or targets north of about 40° with a right ascension in a roughly 6 to 8 hour wide window centered about 6 hours before or after the right ascension of Orion.
  • The maximum length of flight legs will be determined by the need for efficient flight plans as well as the typical requirement that SOFIA take-off and land in Palmdale, California. In most cases, the longest possible observing leg on a given target is ~ 4 hours. Therefore, observations of targets requiring long integrations may have to be done over multiple flights and flight legs.
  • GIs may propose for observations for which the flight does not originate or end in Palmdale, CA, for example, in order to conduct observations under time constraints that require a specific flight path or that require a single flight leg in excess of ~ 4 hours. Such proposals would be equivalent to a deployment and due to resource requirements and the impact that this would have on flight planning, the scientific justification must be strong. The final decision on whether to allow programs with such a high impact on scheduling and flight planning will be made at the Director's discretion.

GIs are encouraged to review the Flight Planning presentation delivered by Dr. Randolf Klein at the SOFIA User's Workshop in November, 2011. The full list of presentations can be found on the SOFIA web site. In addition, a much more detailed discussion of target scheduling and flight planning can be found in the Observation Scheduling and Flight Planning White Paper.