Cornell To Build NASA Airborne Infrared Camera

December 02, 1997

ITHACA, N.Y. -- Cornell University astronomers have been awarded a $2.1 million grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to develop and build an infrared camera called FORCAST, which will be among the main instruments aboard the space agency's newest airborne observatory.

FORCAST, which stands for Faint Object infraRed CAmera for the SOFIA Telescope, will be designed to image the regions of the universe visible in the infrared. It will fly aboard an airborne observatory known as the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA. The first official flight of the special observatory is scheduled for July 2001.

"We hope to be looking at stars just being born," said Terry Herter, Cornell professor of astronomy and the principal investigator on the grant. "We'll be looking into the stars' neonatal environment and image that region."

Astronomers also will be able to peer into the center of the galaxy, as well as examine the disks of dust and gas around stars, which astronomers now believe eventually form planets.

The FORCAST instrument is being built at Cornell by Herter, Gordon Stacey, associate professor in astronomy, and George Gull, research support specialist in radiophysics and space research.

The FORCAST camera will take images in the 16-to 40-micron region of the spectrum, which humans cannot see with the naked eye, and will store them electronically. Herter explained there is an educational component in the grant and that the raw imaging data from FORCAST could be made available to the public, perhaps through the Internet.

NASA and the German space agency DARA are working to build SOFIA. It is a Boeing 747-SP aircraft modified to accommodate a 2.5-meter reflecting telescope, which is being made in Germany. When built, SOFIA will be the largest airborne telescope in the world and will make observations that are impossible for even the largest and highest of ground-based telescopes.

SOFIA will be based at NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Federal Airfield near Mountain View, Calif., and is expected to begin flying in the year 2001.

The Boeing 747-SP is an older plane that is getting a new lease on life. It originally was owned by Pan Am airlines, which named it the Clipper Lindbergh, after aviator Charles Lindbergh. Anne Morrow Lindbergh christened the plane. In 1986, United Airlines purchased the plane, and it was decommissioned in December 1995. NASA purchased the plane in 1997.

FORCAST will be among six primary instruments aboard the observatory. The other instruments include spectrographs, photometers and a high-resolution wide-band camera.

For two decades, NASA's Kuiper Airborne Observatory (KAO) has provided astronomers the opportunity to study infrared regions of the universe that are obscured by the Earth's atmosphere at ground-based sites. The KAO was a C-141 cargo plane modified to carry a 91-cm telescope. Astronomers can use these aircraft to look at the distant, infrared-visible region of the universe and observe transient, astronomical events (such as eclipses) from anywhere around the world.

SOFIA, KAO's successor, in addition to having 10 times the sensitivity and the capability to produce 10 times finer pictures, will have a broad set of high technology and sophisticated instruments.

Cornell University

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