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NASA's Most Powerful Telescope Lives in a Modified 747 2011

NASA has recently launched SOFIA -- The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy -- which lives onboard a modified Boeing 747. At $500 million, the former commercial Pan Am passenger airliner comes with a 17-ton telescope, an oversized window in the fuselage, and a cabin full of instruments carefully studying the view. "Light enters the instruments and scientists on board are actually able to analyze that data in real time as it comes in through their computers," SOFIA project scientist Pamela Marcum said. SOFIA can see things ground-based telescopes cannot see. That's because most infrared energy from space never reaches the ground: It gets absorbed by moisture in the Earth's lower atmosphere. SOPHIA gets around, (or rather above) that astronomical challenge by flying at 45000 feet -- above most atmospheric moisture. There, SOFIA's telescope analyzes spectrums of this particular light. Images captured by SOFIA show the core of M82, a nearby galaxy. Another pink and orange image shows the glow of heat from Jupiter's interior. Scientists say infrared wavelengths hold valuable clues about the births of stars and planets, even our own. "We know almost nothing about how the Earth was formed, and with this instrument we can find regions of so called 'stellar nurseries' where we can begin to see planets coming together," Worden said. "This is the region of the spectrum where we can see stars forming, we can see planets forming, we can see molecules coming together in ...

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