Alycia Weinberger Makes her Maiden Voyage Onboard NASA's SOFIA Airborne Observatory

Monday, July 14, 2014 

DTM Staff Scientist Alycia Weinberger made her maiden voyage on NASA’s SOFIA airborne observatory on 12 June to practice making observations with the same instrument she’ll be using on her own approved airborne observation program early next year. 

SOFIA is the “largest airborne observatory in the world and is capable of making observations that are impossible for even the largest and highest ground-based telescopes.” (NASA) It consists of an extensively modified Boeing 747SP aircraft and carries a reflecting telescope with an effective diameter of 2.5 meters. While SOFIA was in development, Weinberger served on the Science Council from 2007 to 2012 and chaired its science advisory committee from 2010-2011.  

Weinberger’s upcoming project with SOFIA will “study the evolution (if any) of the dust disk around a remarkable nearby star that has orders of magnitude more dust than any other star its age.” This dust was likely produced in a massive collision between giant asteroids. Weinberger’s program will compare spectra taken using the Spitzer Space Telescope in 2006 with spectra taken later this year with SOFIA to look for changes that will indicate how large and diverse the planetesimal fragments in the collision actually are. Every dust grain she and her team see will have a collision within a few years of one another.

The instrument Weinberger will be using is called FORCAST (Faint Object InfrRed CAmera for the SOFIA Telescope), which takes 5-40 micron images and spectroscopy. Weinberger will be doing 8-20 micron spectroscopy. By flying and watching it in operation last month, Weinberger said she “learned more about how to design [her] observations optimally. It was also just fun to see such a neat telescope and platform in operation together.”

Part of SOFIA’s 20-year mission is to stimulate the expansion of scientific instrumentation and nurture the education of young scientists and engineers. While onboard, Weinberger felt this inspiration and is excited about its science capabilities for the future of her field.   

Written by Robin A. Dienel // 14 July 2014

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