NASA Packs 17-Ton Telescope in a Boeing 747 to Solve Catch-22 of Astrophotography


NASA is known for using some impressive optics for its telescopes. But with amazing optics come some logistical limitations.

Ground-based lenses used by NASA can be as massive as needed, but are limited due to atmospheric distortion. Those used in space-based telescopes such as Hubble, on the other hand, must be much smaller, capable of being launched into space and fixed on-the-fly. This leaves NASA with a little Catch–22.

A Catch-22 they’ve managed to find an answer to in the form of SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy): a Boeing 747 with a 17-ton telescope packed inside.

Capable of reaching heights of 45,000 feet, SOFIA effectively bypasses many of the atmospheric limitations of ground-based telescopes, capturing infrared astronomy images like never before. Set to study the infrared signals of planetary atmospheres, comets and even interstellar star chemistry, SOFIA has plenty of projects on its plate.


The video above gives you a great inside look at what SOFIA is, what information it’s providing NASA with and many more fascinating tidbits.

But beyond the video, NASA has also shared a number of images of both SOFIA and the work the 17-ton flying behemoth has already captured. Take a look below to see some of these pictures and then head on over to SOFIA’s mission site to keep up with the telescope and/or find out more.



Infrared view of the Rho Ophiuchi star-forming region



(via Engadget)

Image credits: Photographs courtesy of NASA

  • dbltapp

    And it deals with telescope motion and vibration how?

  • Vlad Dusil

    Crazy math, science and generally stuff way beyond our common comprehension.

  • maverickmage

    IBIS duh… lol

  • Emmanuel Canaan

    Just some additional detail from an aviation fan: That’s actually a 747 SP which is a rare version of the 747, of which only 45 were ever produced. That particular airframe was originally flown by Pan Am in 1977, then by United in 1986, and finally by NASA in 1997.

  • Oj0

    Who do I have to phone to borrow that?

  • OtterMatt

    So freaking cool.

  • Adrian S

    Probably a big ass gyroscope. And they did mention something about “free float” on a “spherical bearing” (minute 7).
    But the best thing about this is the maintenance on ground. You can fix any problem, update sensors, all at a very low cost compared to a orbital telescope.

  • jimmy kraktov

    Reminded me of why I ditched my TV Satellite account five years ago. I truly am missing nothing.

  • jimmy kraktov

    I’d love to go along just for the ride. It would be the ultimate ‘high’ for a tech freak like me, even though most of what was going on would be way above my level of comprehension. Just going to 45,000 ft. would be a rush.

  • Guest

    You paid for Satellite TV?
    Old school.

  • jimmy kraktov

    I was Downtown so I had no other choice but Cable. How would you have done it?