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NASA Space Science

SOFIA Sees Jupiter's Ancient Heat 59

astroengine writes "The flying telescope SOFIA took its maiden flight on Wednesday, and its 'first light' images have already been released. The cool thing about SOFIA is that it flies high enough (integrated inside a converted 747, taking it to an altitude of 41,000 ft) to carry it above 99% of the atmosphere's infrared-absorbing water vapor. This means it can collect 80% of the IR radiation that hits orbital telescopes (like NASA's Spitzer) but without the huge cost of being launched into space. Also, SOFIA is expected to last 20 years, many times the operational lifespan of space missions. Already, SOFIA has returned stunning results, including the observation of heat leaking through Jupiter's clouds, heat that was generated billions of years ago when the gas giant was forming."
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SOFIA Sees Jupiter's Ancient Heat

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  • Really? I could swear the hubble has been up for 20 years.

    • by AliasMarlowe ( 1042386 ) on Sunday May 30, 2010 @12:24PM (#32397644) Journal

      I could swear the hubble has been up for 20 years.

      Indeed. But Hubble's optics and instruments are optimized for operating in the near-ultraviolet and visible ranges. The more recent Spitzer telescope operates in infra-red (3 micron to 180 micron), so it is a more salient comparison. Spitzer's operational life is limited by its coolant supply of 360 liters of liquid helium http://www.spitzer.caltech.edu/technology/cryostat.shtml [caltech.edu], unlike Hubble, which does not need cryogenics.

      • by wwphx ( 225607 )
        Hubble has been up for 20 and a month, though it took 3+ years to fix the aberrant lens so it could produce good science. It's currently planned to maintain operations for at least another 3 years. Personally I hope it's kept in service until the last gyro dies, THEN they attach the booster to de-orbit it. It would be a beautiful thing if they could actually capture it and return it to Earth to be placed in the Smithsonian when it hits end of life, but that's not going to happen.

        The Hubble can operate
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by masterwit ( 1800118 ) *

      Yes, for all the bad press NASA may have received in its past, there have been at least a few outstanding feats achieved by the program, the Hubble being one of these.

      In 1990 the Hubble space telescope was launched and put successfully into orbit, and with a few extremely successful "service missions" has allowed us insight to the universe in many ways we might have not seen otherwise (at least for a while!): We have gained understanding how are universe is expanding and the rate at which it is expanding

  • Vibration isolation (Score:5, Informative)

    by Krishnoid ( 984597 ) * on Sunday May 30, 2010 @11:57AM (#32397420) Journal
    I heard about this a while back [nasa.gov] and am still puzzled as to how you isolate a space telescope from vibrations while its still somewhat within the atmosphere. Is there very little or no turbulence at its flight altitude?
    • by Kjella ( 173770 ) on Sunday May 30, 2010 @12:10PM (#32397520) Homepage

      Well, according to the WP page on clear air turbulence [wikipedia.org]: "Clear air turbulence[1] weather, sometimes colloquially referred to as "air pockets", is the erratic movement of air masses in the absence of any visual cues, such as clouds. Clear-air turbulence is caused when bodies of air moving at widely different speeds meet; at high altitudes of around 7,000-12,000 metres (23,000-39,000 ft)". I guess at 41000 feet this means they pass above most turbulence. Having been aboard some jumbojets I must say they appear very stable under normal flight, you probably need more stabilizers than on the ground but even there it's windy and such.

      • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday May 30, 2010 @12:42PM (#32397808)

        The telescope is mounted on a spherical bearing with gyroscopic stabilization and image feedback to correct for drift. This takes care of rotations. For translations, there is a damped spring mechanism holding the whole kaboodle to the support bulkhead (the image doesn't care if the telescope is translated, as it is "inifinitely" far away; however sudden translations can cause the telescope to flex, moving the image plane). And the pilots are very, very skilled at keeping constant and very precise attitudes. It's remarkably stable.

  • Cheaper astronomy (Score:3, Interesting)

    by videoBuff ( 1043512 ) on Sunday May 30, 2010 @12:00PM (#32397444)
    IT never fails to amaze me that NASA does not send a balloon to 100,000 feet and load it up with all kinds of scientific equipment. That way, they would have advantages of being almost in space, but for a fraction of the cost of sending anything in space.
  • Hubble was launched in 1990 so it's managed the 20 years that's "many times the operational lifespan of space missions". Plus it's able to observe 24*7, not just when the crew are allowed to fly. So it does sound like the description could do with reigning in it's dismissive attitude towards the competition.

    It obviously does have advantages so far as costs go, though only time will tell just how many observing hours it clocks up

    • Well, hubble had a few repair missions, each of which was A LOT more expensive than this whole project.

  • Jupiter's heat is not billions of years old - the planet keeps shrinking, and thus keeps producing heat.

  • The U-2 can reach 70,000 feet, compared with the 474's 40,000. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lockheed_U-2 [wikipedia.org] There should be U-2s available now that they've been retired. Assuming it has enough payload capacity to carry the SOFIA, more resolution would be available.
    • At those altitudes, the U-2 barely has enough lift to carry it's own weight, let alone carry a telescope with liquid cooling system.

      Another reason for choosing a 747 is the size of the telescope. It's roughly half a U-2 long, and more than double as wide.

  • CO2 versus H20? (Score:1, Offtopic)

    by Glock27 ( 446276 )

    So, CO2 is now (however wrongheadedly) officially a "pollutant". How is it that water vapor, a much stronger greenhouse gas, isn't considered such?

    If you think human produced water vapor isn't an issue, I suggest you research the historical humidity record in erstwhile dry spots like Phoenix, AZ and inland southern CA.

    The true answer is neither is a pollutant, and the human contribution to any warming of the Earth is negligible. The odds favor a cooling trend for a few decades regardless.

In the realm of scientific observation, luck is granted only to those who are prepared. - Louis Pasteur