Long, local flights spent shooting stars, moon

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There can also be a bit of a delay in gratification when the telescope in the back of NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a Boeing 747SP that carries a 106-inch diameter telescope where passengers once sat, probes the universe. Analyzing the images takes time, often a matter of months or years.

“We don’t often get that ah-ha moment,” said Elizabeth Ruth, one of 14 NASA pilots who fly SOFIA, in a videoconference with Chief Pilot Andrew Barry and AOPA, a few days after the discovery of water on the sunlit side of the moon was announced, a little more than two years after the August 2018 flight. “We didn’t know about the effects of this until Monday as well, when we heard the announcement, and since then I’ve heard from friends around the world.”

Confirming that significant amounts of water await future lunar explorers is significant, even if the quantity is relatively small. Measuring reflected light, scientists calculated that roughly 12 ounces of water are trapped in a cubic meter of lunar soil in the Clavius Crater. It remains to be seen if there’s enough water waiting on the moon to support NASA’s plan to return there in 2024, but it may well help. The results and analysis of the 2018 telescope run were published October 26 in Nature Astronomy, and propelled the flying telescope back into the news, though it was hardly the only significant discovery SOFIA has made. Barry and Ruth have flown many missions, no two of them exactly alike.

“It’s quite an adventure every night,” Barry said.

SOFIA climbs quickly and nearly to its altitude limit on a typical mission to offer a clear view of the sky, then traces precise, arcing tracks above 99 percent of the Earth’s atmospheric water vapor to capture the infrared light from distant galaxies, and more recently the not-so-distant moon. While SOFIA has logged many important discoveries, rarely has there been an ear-splitting “whoop” of celebration from the team of scientists sequestered downstairs from the flight deck.

Barry, who manages SOFIA’s flight operations at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Palmdale, California, said the crews take turns flying the huge telescope, and random chance explains why he was on the flight deck that night in August 2018: “That was just the luck of the draw for Liz and I. Now, it’s history, apparently.”

Turning a Boeing 747

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