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A Telescope Takes Flight

Instruments will see newborn galaxies from behind the wing of a plane

4 min read

A landmark moment in the exploration of the deep cosmos occurred recently. A powerful flying telescope, SOFIA--the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy--made its first checkout flights, having survived a bureaucratic near-death experience only a year ago.

SOFIA is a joint project of NASA and DLR, Germany's space agency, based in Bonn and Stuttgart. An infrared telescope with remarkable spectral range, it picks up the mantle of the Kuiper project, which took to the skies in the 1970s and 1980s, peering from the side of a Lockheed C-141 Starlifter transport. Kuiper was groundbreaking, but SOFIA, seated aft of the wing of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet, has more scope: it will scan the deep heavens, where stars are forming and the universe is still being born.

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Two men fix metal rods to a gold-foiled satellite component in a warehouse/clean room environment

Technicians at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems facilities in Redondo Beach, Calif., work on a mockup of the JWST spacecraft bus—home of the observatory’s power, flight, data, and communications systems.


For a deep dive into the engineering behind the James Webb Space Telescope, see our collection of posts here.

When the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) reveals its first images on 12 July, they will be the by-product of carefully crafted mirrors and scientific instruments. But all of its data-collecting prowess would be moot without the spacecraft’s communications subsystem.

The Webb’s comms aren’t flashy. Rather, the data and communication systems are designed to be incredibly, unquestionably dependable and reliable. And while some aspects of them are relatively new—it’s the first mission to use Ka-band frequencies for such high data rates so far from Earth, for example—above all else, JWST’s comms provide the foundation upon which JWST’s scientific endeavors sit.

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