Science enabled by the platforms of Air & Space

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I’m out here at NASA Dryden’s Aircraft Operations Facility,the DAOF, to support line operations for the Stratospheric Observatory forInfrared Astronomy, SOFIA. I’m normally a spacecraft science instrument builder, having previously tested detectors for astronomy space telescopes Spitzer and JWST and building, testing and operating a 10 instrument payload for LCROSS that impacted the moon in 2009 detecting water within a permanently shadowed crater. And since 2011, I am working instrument calibration operations for the en-flight probe to Pluto, New Horizons.

Thus, SOFIA, being an aircraft, is a very different experience for me, coming from the spacecraft side of the house.

Sitting in the DAOF with SOFIA are some of the world’s premiere aircraft used for Earth Science observations, measuring in-situ molecules in our planet’s atmosphere, capitalizing on a mobile platform that can go monitor fires, or survey ice sheets at the poles, or observe transient phenomena like meteor showers or spacecraft or space-sample return capsules.

Check out this amazing suite of aircraft and their objectives at NASA’s Airborne Science Program.

Tonight we roll out ~8pm local time for first night of line ops from the 11pm-5am shift. I’m very eager to experience this important prep-activity for SOFIA commissioning science flights which start next week.

More information about SOFIA’s unique science can be found at NASA SOFIA Web Page.


Firm Flexibility

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Tonight’s line operations were cancelled due to open issues recertifying work on reworked parts of the telescope assembly (TA) power subsystem. There are no show-stoppers, just the need for more time for testing and integration. Progress continues to be made. The cautious step was to make the decision to start line ops tomorrow, and there is a contingency day next week to make up time if needed. The schedule for the remaining three nights of line ops will remain tight, but there is a plan. Creative re-ordering of tasks will be the “philosophy” these next three days. Having worked operations on two space missions, I can say that operations of any craft, air or space, is a skill of “firm flexibility.”

This evening, I experienced a Technical Readiness Review(TRR). This consisted of getting all the leads around a table and walking through the status of each subsystem, who is needed where and when, what types of testing will be done during the next few days, and when the daily crew briefings will be held. Also addressed were questions posed by the visiting science team to the operations team, to fill in some gaps. Today was the first time the group had re-assembled since the last line & flight ops, which for the FORCAST instrument, had been back in March. Since then, two other instruments (HIPO/FLITECAM and GREAT) had been installed, tested, and removed,and there have been software upgrades to both the telescope and telescope to science instrument communications. This phase of operations is pretty complex,folding in highly dynamic items that may seem be changing a lot, but it’s actually normal. And the job of operations is to keep to schedule while still achieving the tasks. Sometimes the path is different from the exact original concept, but if the goals are met, it was a successful journey. At tomorrow’s crew briefing at 2130h, open items from today’s TRR will be addressed and closed before line ops begins, set for 2300h-0500h.

I’m still a bit on the sidelines, watching and learning from the experienced SOFIA observers who have worked with SOFIA operations before. During a lull this afternoon, I got a glimpse into the AORs, or AstronomicalObservation Requests, which is how an end-user communicates her requests to enable an observing plan via scripted observational tasks. The AORs for our upcoming line ops have been written, and one of my roles will be quick look data analysis to confirm they executed as expected. My colleague Luke Keller, from Ithaca College, is shown below crafting some new slit-stepping observations.

Oh, I got to step inside SOFIA today. She’s bigger on the inside (compared to what I had expected, that is.).IF

Being in the presence of a cool lady, a 747SP named the Clipper Lindbergh

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I have arrived here in Palmdale, CA. This is a new place for me, so it has a share of expectations. Palmdale, just 50 miles north-east-ish of Los Angeles is home to the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility or DAOF, for short.  Upon arrival, I learned that NASADryden Flight Research Center itself is about another 40 minute drive away, so time permitting, I’d like to check out that sister center.

I’ve rendezvoused with two colleagues from Cornell and Ithaca College who have both flown on SOFIA and also have put in so many hours to make the FORCAST instrument a success. They are eager to get back to operations & science observations again. I’ve also met two graduate students, one who has flown already and another, just as green-as-me, this being his first time to Palmdale and checking out the *Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy* for himself.

Today marks a special occasion for me to see SOFIA in all her shiny-white-paint with an organized crew getting her ready for this week of line operations, or line ops. The reality is intense. One can read about things on the internet or in papers, but to actually see the physical metal, glimpse at her sleek curves, observe the crews keeping her safe and airworthy, is something else. And that’s just the outside.

The science instrument FORCAST, a mid-infrared instrument, is already installed and had its latest cryogen fill this morning.

Tonight, line operations are scheduled from 11pm-5am and I can share what I learn.  Until then, pieces of the complex set of what goes into operating a facility such as SOFIA,are slowly coming into place.

For now, I just cannot help staring at this amazing beauty.


747SP, the SP means “Special Performance.”