To look to the heavens, the SOFIA observatory takes to the skies.
Whereas telescope builders trying to give astronomers a clear look at the skies generally seek out arid mountaintops, where atmospheric distortion is minimal, a new telescope mounted on the side of a Boeing 747 does them one better. The 2.5-meter telescope built by NASA and the German Aerospace Center can climb as high as 13,700 meters to escape the atmosphere’s deleterious effects. Those altitudes allow the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, to rise above more than 99 percent of the atmosphere’s distorting water vapor. As it traverses the skies, SOFIA stays fixed on a target with the help of stabilizing, fiber-optic gyroscopes.