Two Columbia Public School educators were selected to participate in NASA’s Airborne Astrtonomy Ambassador program. CPS Planetarium Director Melanie Knocke and Rock Bridge High School science teacher Rex Beltz flew onboard the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) the week of November 6-11, 2016. Mrs. Knocke and Mr. Beltz (Team BK) posted pictures and comments about their experience on this page.
Click here to read official announcement of NASA’s 2016 Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors.
Nov 3 – During the last telecon before we leave for California, we found out that the instruments that will be flying on SOFIA during our flight are more sensitive to heat than most, therefore our flights will be colder than usual, with a high of 60 degrees! Also found out that the cabin will be pressurized to a higher altitude. Normal airlines pressurize cabins to about 5000 feet. SOFIA cabin will be pressurized to 8000 feet. We have been warned this will make us more suseptible to cold, so we really need to dress warmly for the almost 10-hour flights. Also, there will be no access to microwaves during the flight, again because of the sensitive equipment. Coffee will be provided!
Nov 4 – Team BK was interviewed by KMIZ TV about their upcoming SOFIA experience. Should air on Saturday.
Nov 6 – Team BK has arrived in Los Angeles and are on their way up to Palmdale and SOFIA.
Updated Nov 6 8:40 pm Pacific Time – SOFIA Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors get their jackets!
From left – Dana Backman (SOFIA Outreach Manager) Joseph Wright, Melanie Knocke, Ebony Moreen, Rex Beltz, Lario Yerino
Updated November 7, 2016 – 6:50 am Pacific Time.
We were supposed to sleep late today, but that is hard when your body is on Central Daylight Time and you are in Pacific Standard Time – a difference of 3 hours. We are planning on caffeine and adrenalin to keep up awake during tonight’s flight.
Our schedule for today: Meet at 10:00 am. Shop for dinner and late night snack. 12:00 pm – go through security and get badges. 1:00 pm – Egress training onboard SOFIA. 2:30 pm – pre-flight briefing. 4:25 pm – SOFIA take off!!!
Tonight’s flight will take us over 15 states and across the border of Canada while the science team observes at least 8 different objects.
Updated Nov 7, 1:10 pm Pacific Time – FINALLY!
Updated Nov 8, 4:00 am Pacific Standard Time
First SOFIA mission for team BK complete. Awesome but exhausting. More details after a nap!
Updated Nov 8, 10:30 am Pacific Standard Time
For the record, Team BK voted absentee before they left for California!
First reaction this morning – WOW! What an experience!
Flight summary: Took off from Palmdale CA on time (around 4:22 pm). All astronomical targets were observed as planned at altitudes ranging from 37,000-45,000 feet. The original flight plan (as posted below) was adjusted slightly so the aircraft did no pass into Canada, but we did cross over 15 states. Landed back in Palmdale around 2:30 am.
Scientists, engineers and flight crew were very welcoming and willing to share their experiences with the five AAAs on board. The flight crew even had an open jump seat in the cockpit that they offered us – Mrs. Knocke was the first one to jump at that offer (see selfie) below. She got to ride in the cockpit during takeoff . And, yes, it was as cool as it sounds!
By the end of the flight, Team BK could handle the headsets, knew what to look for on the computer displays – at least the ones at the Education Outreach workstation – and have a better idea about what to pack for their next flight on Wednesday (much lighter and bring extra socks).
Updated November 9, 10:10 am Pacific Standard Time
Good morning. Our task for this morning was to sleep late, as Team BK has another flight tonight. However, Mrs. Knocke’s is still on Central Daylight time, so she woke up at 7:00 am local time. Will be another long day – but well worth it!
Yesterday we had a tour of the Science Instruments laboratory which is located in SOFIA’s home hanger. SOFIA has a 100-inch telescope mounted in the back of the aircraft – which is sealed off from where the scientists and crew work. Different instruments can be attached to the telescope at a point just inside the pressurized bulkhead. The ability to swap out instruments gives astronomers the flexibility to observe the sky over a wide range of infrared wavelengths. Swapping out these extremely complex instruments can take up to a few days, but increases the usefulness of the telescope. It was fascinating talking with the manager about how they care for and maintain these cutting-edge, precision instruments.
After the tour of the lab, we went back inside SOFIA. The scientist in charge of the Up-GREAT instrument (which is currently on the telescope) had patiently explained his detectors to us during the flight on Monday night and had invited us back the next day to observe the cryo-fill process – where the team fills the instruments with liquid helium and liquid nitrogen to keep the detectors “cool” (4 degrees Kelvin – which is FRIGID in common speak, but what is required for high level science.) We were allowed to approach the telescope while he pointed out the detector’s different parts. The complexity of the instrument is mind-boggling. Pictures only hint at all the effort that went into constructing this amazing piece of machinery.
After our tour of the Up-GREAT instrument, we attended last night’s flight briefing. The AAA team was allowed to sit in on the briefing last night, even though we weren’t flying. It was definitely beneficial. There is so much going on, that we are all on overload. Yet, the more we hear, the more sinks in. Each flight briefing goes over every aspect of the flight, from flight path, to weather, to instrument status, to safety checklists.
Then, after leaving the base and grabbing a light dinner, we drove to a look-out point at the end of the Palmdale Municipal Airport’s runway and watched SOFIA take off for its all-night flight. It was AWESOME, a word that has been used over and over during this trip, but it really is the best way to describe things!
Tonight’s flight is scheduled to take off around 5:00 pm Pacific Time. This flight will head out to sea and fly up and down the coast of the United States. It is due to come back at 2:40 am Friday morning.
Updated Nov 10, 4:11 am Pacific Time
Team BK took off at 5:10 pm last night and landed this morning at 2:58. More later this afternoon.
Updated November 10, 2016 – 11:00 am.
Yesterday, we started our SOFIA day with a tour of the Mirror Coating Facility. This is where they will strip and clean the telescope’s 100-inch mirror and recoat it with a very thin layer of aluminum. As you can imagine, this will not be an easy process, given the size, weight, and fragility of the mirror.
Once the mirror has been removed from the aircraft, stripped of its current aluminum reflective surface and thoroughly cleaned, it will be lowered into a giant vacuum chamber where, after a lengthy evacuation process, it will be coated with another layer of aluminum. Inside the chamber, there are 63 tungsten filaments (like the one I am holding in the picture). Each filament will have 10 aluminum clips attached to it. 630 tiny pieces of aluminum will be vaporized and provide the 100-inch mirror with its new reflective coating.
After the tour, it was time for the night’s flight briefing, then on to the aircraft. This night, we took off around 5:10 pm and headed out over the Pacific Ocean. While everyone is free to walk around the cabin, they must wear an “EPOS” at all time. This is an emergency oxygen supply that we place over our heads in case there is smoke in the cabin. Fortunately, neither flight required the use of an EPOS.
For us, this night was a little less overwhelming. We knew what to expect and how to handle the com system and headsets. As a result, we were able to relax a bit and talk with more of the crew and visiting scientists. Again, the complexity of the aircraft and science systems is just incredible. So many different parts and people all working together to produce cutting edge scientific data – we were truly fortunate to be allowed to participate in such a mission. We really did feel part of the team. The flight ended at 2:58 am Thursday morning and although I didn’t want it to end, we were all really tired and ready to head back to the hotel. At the risk of over-using a word – this has been AWESOME!!!
Updated November 15, 2016 – 11:00 Central Time
Team BK are back at Rock Bridge High School and their normal jobs. After their last flight ended early Thursday, they got some sleep, then went back to the Armstrong Base to turn in their badges. That was a sad moment! Then, they were driven to Vasquez Rocks – a California State park that has served as a backdrop for several science fiction shows (Star Trek, the original series for one) and a few westerns as well.
We also stopped at a road cut along highway 14 which just happens to cut across the San Andreas Fault. It was very interesting seeing the folded and twisted layers of rock. After a farewell dinner, we retired early since we were all short on sleep.
Friday morning, we said good bye to Palmdale and drove back to Los Angeles. Before heading to the airport, we stopped by the California Science Center and saw the space shuttle Endeavour. From there, Team BK and the other three Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors said their goodbyes and went their separate ways.
Updated November 15, 2016 – 1:00 pm Central Time
It will take a while for Team BK to go through all the pictures and notes, but we will be putting together some talks for local groups and the planetarium. As soon as we figure things out, we will post our dates and times on this website as well as the Planetarium’s FaceBook page. All and all, the SOFIA Airborne Astronomy Ambassador program has been a blast!