Monday, December 31, 2007


In 2007 the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy finally took flight. SOFIA was designed to replace the Kuiper Airborne Observatory, a C-141 which stopped flying in 1995. Modifying a 747 SP into a flying telescope took nearly 10 years in the hangar. As recently as 2006 the project came perilously close to cancellation. On April 26 SOFIA made her first flight in this incarnation. After moving fron Waco, Texas to Dryden Flight Research Center, she completed her initial flight test phase on November 15.

Though no books have been written yet, SOFIA could someday capture the public imagination. The name and stubby appearance make her quite personable. In her first life she was christened Clipper Lindbergh by Anne Morrow Lindbergh on the 50th anniversary of the historic flight. After service with Pan Am and United, she was destined for the boneyard before being rescued by NASA as an observatory.

SOFIA will search for nebulae, dust and Black Holes in galaxies. Every galaxy yet found contains at it centre a supermassive Black Hole. Once it was thought that giant Black Holes formed from collisions between smaller objects. Galaxies recently found by the Spitzer Space Telescope show no sign of being disturbed, indicating that collisions play role in their formation. Galaxies have been found formed less than 500 million years after the Big Bang, indicating that supermassive Black Holes are primordial.

Primordial Black Holes are thought to exist by Stephen Hawking and many other physicists. They are predicted to have formed from quantum fluctuations shortly after the Big Bang. Size of a PBH would be limited by a "horizon distance," that light could travel in a given time. Previously it was thought that the speed of light would cause any PBH's to be tiny. Because c was much larger, Black Holes could have formed of enormous mass, big enough to seed formation of galaxies. A hundred billion galaxies containing massive Black Holes say that the speed of light has changed.

SOFIA's stated observation goals also include: star birth and death, formation of new solar systems, identification of complex molecules in space, planets, comets and asteroids in our solar system. Black Holes may also play a role in formation of these smaller objects. Our previous views of infant stars show twin jets like those produced by a Black Hole. Their continued presence would explain the puzzles of Earth's core heat and magnetic field. Study of asteroids is of great importance, as these objects can strike us.

2008 will be another year of seeking Black Holes in unexpected places. Happy New Year to everyone!

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