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HOLY COW FOLKS, I am so excited to tell you the play-by-play of my first flight on @SOFIAtelescope and how FREAKIN COOL it was:
@SOFIAtelescope (telescope on airplane) is currently flying out of Christchurch, New Zealand for its “southern deployment.” It usually flies out of Palmdale, CA. They come down here to optimize time during northern hemisphere summer/Southern Hemisphere winter (long, cool nights).
Also some celestial targets are only observable from much farther south than round trip flights from/to California.
So I show up to the US Antarctic Center at the Christchurch airport and already feeling a bit fancy and official. BUT LITTLE DID I KNOW.
I got a rad safety briefing and learned, among other things, about these cool lifesaving flexible masks called EPOS. On @SOFIAtelescope you carry one with you at all times. They’re into safety here 👍🏼
Then there was a mission brief. We talked about the flight plan, observing plan, and roll call for the manifest. When my name was called I said “HERE I’M CAITLIN AND I’M VERY EXCITED”
Then all of a sudden it’s time to board, which means you just kinda walk across the tarmac like a pro (and take many photos)
Charlie, the friendly mission director, asks me if I want to ride in the cockpit for takeoff and I’m like YES OF COURSE
SO THEN I’M SITTING IN THE JUMPSEAT during takeoff which is SO RAD. The flight number is NASA747 (how cool). Here’s my friend Tim the navigator who seemed to know what all these buttons mean
So while hangin in the cockpit I realized flying is extremely complicated 🤔 and I promise to no longer get frustrated by flight delays (SERIOUSLY ALL OF THESE BUTTONS DO IMPORTANT THINGS, MANY BUTTONS NOT PICTURED)
Finally an hour after takeoff it appeared we were ready to cruise so, of course, that means TIME FOR CHIPS AND SALSA. I was told not to spill any salsa on the knobs and I’m like whaaa, bro
Enough airplane, more telescope! I hop downstairs and observations are ramping up. At this point a giant door on the side of the plane is open; I most definitely did not take this photo of @SOFIAtelescope . Also it was nighttime. From the inside it looks a bit ...different.
This is the main cabin; the 18ish monitors are all super important. Telescope operators on far left, then instrument scientists, then mission directors (who keep track of both telescope and flight), then storage, more workstations, and kitchen.
The screen in the middle shows the guider image: there’s a smaller, optical telescope taking images near the target to make sure the telescope is locked on target as the airplane whizzes along on its merry way
We observed some pretty cool targets tonight like Eta Carinae and the Keyhole nebula. Eta Carinae is a massive binary star system that’s near the end of its life and Keyhole is a nearby region where stars are just being born. Both are way far south in the sky.
A word about our flight path: it’s 100% determined by the objects the telescope needs to look at . Their positions on the sky depend on wherever @SOFIAtelescope is on Earth and the time. The night sky and telescope move. COMPLICATED.
Optimizing the schedule requires massive computer simulations and how to optimize everything: which targets are most important to observe, which can be observed back to back without gaps, and of course gotta complete a round-trip in <12hrs.
Being off schedule — not being at a certain position in the flight plan at a certain time — can be bad news. The wiggle room is 1-2 minutes. 😱
This was our flight plan for the night, taking us pretty far south! Some people said that might give us a good chance to see Aurora Australis (the southern lights)...
And sure enough AURORA CAME OUT TO PLAY. Back to the cockpit for me. Even my iPhone could see it, so you know it’s good
I had a feeling the show was pretty good when the pilots started to pull out their iPhones too
Thank goodness @iangriffin was along taking real photos of the Aurora which he’s studying (so cool!!! more on that at the end)
Then suddenly another dude pulls out NIGHT VISION BINOCULARS and I ask myself (a) why I’ve never looked through these before and (b) why I don’t have a pair of these magic eyes (this is a budget iPhone shot through binocs of Aurora, doesn’t do it justice)
And that folks, is the magic of @SOFIAtelescope ... which I get to fly on again tonight, this time with my own planned observations. I AM SO LUCKY AND LOVE MY JOB.
Here's the real cool stuff from last night... thanks @iangriffin!!!
MORE FROM @NASA @SOFIAtelescope on night 2 (!!) of observing:
After a few hours of not really sleeping (who can sleep when you have a @NASA mission to attend to?!) I show up back at the Antarctic Center for the mission brief.
Since we observed one of my targets tonight I got to stand up like a pro for 2 min and talk #science about our target, NGC 7780. Isn’t it cute?
NGC 7780 might look like #justanothergalaxy but it’s special because a supernova went off in it and was observed in 2001. That’s useful for measuring its distance very accurately, making it a good datapoint in the measurement of cosmic expansion itself! 🎇
Trouble is we don’t know how much dust sits in NGC 7780 🤷🏼‍♀️ and dust can be a nuisance when it comes to accurate distance measurements. This is a fun project I’m doing with @DScol, @JorgZavala, @justinspilker and others, looking at ~20 such galaxies. Only one tonight though!
Fun fact from mission brief: we need good backup landing airports in case Christchurch is rainy/foggy/misty/whatever (which it was) in case the telescope hatch gets stuck open. Water is bad. This has never happened though, whew
But JUST IN CASE backup airports were Auckland, Ohakea, and... Sydney. Don’t forget your passport when flying @SOFIAtelescope!
Tonight’s flight was special... @SOFIAtelescope’s 600th flight!! We celebrated with the best cakes ever and I’m told these are from @CopenhagenBake. 🍰we all devour them quickly and suddenly it’s time to board again
Fewer fliers on board tonight so I scored a cockpit seat for both takeoff and landing with my friend Hina from @NASAAmes 🎊 Here’s a better picture of ALL THE BUTTONS
Which brings me to another fun fact: the SOFIA plane (aka NASA747 heavy) is OLD. It had a past life with both PanAm and, my fav, @united before being transformed into @SOFIAtelescope. It’s a fair bit older than me... hence all the analogue BUTTONS
The flight engineer Matt (note to past Caitlin: not a navigator since it’s not 1920) reminded us of our three different escape routes from the cockpit, the most absurd of which is repelling from the roof down the side holding a magic stick (closest pic I could find online)
Takeoff routine started off normal but then a hatch in one engine was stuck ☹️ and the flight was almost cancelled. The fix? Turn the thing off and on again... good to know troubleshooting 101 is universal
There were more aurora tonight even though we weren’t as far south as last night. No photos compare to @iangriffin so please just imagine...
Quick note that there’s no WiFi or service on @SOFIAtelescope so you are responsible for your own food and entertainment. Usually I work on #science while observing but THESE FLIGHTS WERE WAY TOO EXCITING
@SOFIAtelescope has a nice “first class” area where you can come to crash for a nap. Tonight, THAT WAS ME
Then 2am rolls around and it’s time for NGC 7780, woohoooo!!! Time for some nice 100-200um dust maps
@SOFIAtelescope is the only operational telescope anywhere (Earth or space) that could take these data, because the wavelength we want is basically impossible to do from the ground because there’s too much water vapor in the atmosphere (good for humans, bad for telescopes)
That’s why @SOFIAtelescope is on an airplane in the first place: it flies above MOST of the water vapor on the atmosphere, making these dope measurements possible.
Why not just put a telescope in space? 🤔 CAUSE ITS SUPER EXPENSIVE (but we try to do that too when we can)
The instrument we’re using is called HAWC+, like a special camera mounted to the back of the telescope, and it did a GREAT JOB detecting NGC 7780 right there 👏🏼
Here’s another side view of of the @SOFIAtelescope instrumentation. IT HAS MORE BUTTONS THAN THE COCKPIT FOLKS
More celebratory 600th flight treats were had! I took the pig treat, of course
Back to the cockpit for landing, which was cool and slightly terrifying because a disembodied voice yells out our elevation as we approach the ground like 50! 40! 30! 20! 10!
And @SOFIAtelescope flight #600 is a wrap! I’m SO TIRED but I had such a GREAT time. Now, to sleep and then hatch a plan for my return...
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