Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Actually, it's NASA's new flying telescope (which is incidentally also a plane).
Called SOFIA, or the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, NASA's new toy is a modified 747 jet mounted with a telescope unique for its ability to snap photographs of the heavens. Pictures of the Orion Nebula from its first space mission were recently released to the public, according to the BBC.
The state-of-the-art telescope was a project nearly 15 years in the making. It was originally meant to be finished by 1998, just three years after its predecessor, the Kuiper Airborne Observatory (KAO), was retired. But budget and timeline constraints led to its eventual abandonment in 2006, and it was reinstated more recently.
When the first pictures of the long-anticipated project were finally released (and can be viewed here), astronomers responded with understandable elation.
"Right out of the box, without most of the motion compensation equipment turned on, we were getting image qualities that were pretty close to the best you can get for a telescope of that size," said James De Buizer of the Universities Space Research Association, which runs SOFIA for NASA.
SOFIA is particularly special for its ability to see light at colors deep in the infrared. Although there are other telescopes in the world that can see in the infrared, their image quality is diluted by Earth's thick atmosphere. Not only can SOFIA fly higher than any telescope on Earth — thus enjoying less interference from the atmosphere — but it is also mobile. That means it can always be moved on a whim to more suitable viewing conditions.
"To do this part of the spectrum, you need either to go to space or you need to use balloons or an airborne observatory," said Terry Herter, lead scientist on SOFIA's first science mission.
Balloons are impractical and imprecise, and a key advantage SOFIA has over space telescopes like Hubble is that its parts are more accessible for repair or adjustment.
"The real unique thing [about SOFIA] is that you have a platform you can change out instruments on," Herter added.
Furthermore, one of the most exciting facets of being able to peer so closely into formations like the Orion Nebula is the opportunity to witness the birth of stars.
"The holy grail of astronomy has always been to find stars just turning on. One of the things we can do with SOFIA is look in detail at the earliest generations of stars," said Herter.