Health & Science
3:48 pm
Thu January 16, 2014

Milwaukee Astronomer Will Fly High into Stratosphere Aboard NASA Aircraft

NASA's SOFIA aircraft will take two Milwaukee educators and others into the stratosphere to collect data on the universe using a special infrared telescope.
NASA's SOFIA aircraft will take two Milwaukee educators and others into the stratosphere to collect data on the universe using a special infrared telescope.
Credit NASA/Carla Thomas

A Milwaukee astronomer is about to take the trip of a lifetime, traveling 45,000 feet into the sky aboard a NASA aircraft.

Director of UWM's Manfred Olson Planetarium Jean Creighton will be a passenger this spring on SOFIA, NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, as it flies into the stratosphere.

She'll be joined by science teacher Kathy Gustavson from Nicolet High School in Glendale, along with educators from 10 other states. It's a rare opportunity for civilians to take such a trip.

"Most of the chosen people are teachers who are committed and gifted STEM teachers in middle schools and high schools...and would be effective in sharing their experience and knowledge with their students, fellow teachers, and their communities," Creighton says. "A few people are informal educators in planetariums or astronomy clubs."

SOFIA is a specially-designed Boeing 747SP aircraft that Creighton calls “largest flying astronomical observatory in the world." During their trip, Creighton, Gustavson and the others aboard will collect data about the universe.

“The kinds of projects that SOFIA does involve anywhere from the solar system all the way up to galaxies...the rings of Saturn to how planets form in other solar systems," Creighton says.

SOFIA also boasts a 100-inch infrared telescope peering out of its hull.

The Field-Imaging Far-Infrared Line Spectrometer, or FIFI-LS, in the NASA SOFIA science laboratory
The Field-Imaging Far-Infrared Line Spectrometer, or FIFI-LS, in the NASA SOFIA science laboratory
Credit Tom Tschida/NASA

"One of the most exciting things we can do with infrared telescopes nowadays is we can see some of the very youngest galaxies in the whole universe," Creighton says. This will help astronomers understand how galaxies are born by observing how they look early on in their evolution.

A craft like SOFIA can make observations at less cost than something like the Hubble Space Telescope, while still being able to fly high enough into the stratosphere to gather data.

Most commercial airliners cruise between 35,000-36,000 feet. But at nearly 45,000 feet up, SOFIA’s telescope will be above “99% of the pesky water vapor” in the atmosphere, which might otherwise hamper its ability to observe infrared light, Creighton says.

SOFIA also gives NASA Ambassadors like Creighton and Gustavson the chance to “bring all the excitement and science that they learn to everybody."

"The idea that I get to...be that high in the sky is exciting in and of itself," she says. "To have in addition to that the opportunity to get observations in the infrared is a second bonus, but the third one, of course, is that I'm going to have to think about how to best share that story as it unfolds and afterwards with my audiences and the public."

Creighton and Gustavson will travel to California this spring for training, and complete medical and security clearances. Then they'll get to take two 10-hour flights onboard SOFIA sometime between the end of April and early May.

But Creighton doesn't expect those flights to be particularly comfortable. She's been told it's very loud onboard and that passengers have to bring their own food.

"I had to laugh because they were telling us, 'Don't give us your special requests for food. This isn't going to be chicken or pasta,'" she says.

Watch SOFIA test out its telescope door mid-flight below.