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Astrobiologists Prepare To Hop Aboard SOFIA

The team is one of the first selected to perform research during the first official cycle of the world’s largest airborne observatory.

What’s the Latest Development?

A team of astrobiologists is among the first research groups selected to hitch a ride aboard the Strategic Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), the world’s largest airborne observatory. A joint project between NASA and the German Aerospace Center, SOFIA is a modified Boeing aircraft outfitted with a reflecting telescope and can cruise at an altitude of 40,000 feet. With a planned lifespan of 20 years, its first cycle of research flights is scheduled to take place in the next 12 months. 

What’s the Big Idea?

The astrobiology team, led by Rensselaer professor Douglas Whittet, plans to use absorption spectrometry to search clouds of dust around five young stars for the molecules that form the basis for amino acids. Up until now they’ve been building their research using mostly observations from ground-based telescopes, and the results from two space-based observatories lacked the resolution and sensitivity they needed. Whittet says, “There’s really nothing else out there right now [other than SOFIA] that could collect the data we need for this research.” The team has been awarded 6.5 hours’ worth of flight time, which will be used in one or more nighttime voyages above the Pacific Ocean.

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