The oxygen we breathe, the carbon dioxide the plants need, the wind we harness for energy, the ozone that protects us from UV light and all the other gasses that shield us from cosmic radiation... All this is our atmosphere.
Without it life as we know it, wouldn't be possible.
But for astronomers all around the world it's a barrier for most of the electromagnetic spectrum. This means that they can't see most of the light that reaches us from outer space.
So how do we work around the problem?
We build a big airplane and mount a high tech telescope in it. We let it fly at 10'000 meters above sea level to avoid a big part of our atmosphere and therefore making it possible to look at almost all the wavelengths of light.
Maybe you think: "why doing this when we have Hubble, that's completely outside of earth's atmosphere?" The answer is simple but very important. The airplane will land after every observation. This gives us the ability to change, modify and extend the capabilities of the observatory for the needs of the scientists working with it. You don't need expensive rockets and high risks to maintain the instrument.
In the photos of this post you see the current SOFIA telescope that sits in a Boeing 747. You can also see the older models of the observatory aircraft.
There is a photo of the segmented mirror, a mirror built to be as light as possible while being able to correct atmospheric distortion with actuators behind the elements of the mirror and therefore generate a crystal clear image of the observed object. And you can see some of the observation flights they take.
SOFIA is one of the most fascinating observatories I know of. Since the very beginning I follow all the news around it and I dream of flying with it one day... Take a deeper look at its capabilities and learn more about the science they do.
Photos by @sofiatelescope
Text by me