Although budget cuts forced the closing of Herndon High School’s planetarium two years ago, astronomy teacher Mary Blessing is undaunted. And last month, she was one of only six high school teachers in the nation chosen to ride on SOFIA, a modified 747 with a gigantic telescope that NASA and the German space agency fly above the atmosphere to study the formation of stars, planets, black holes and all that other cool stuff you learn about in planetariums.
By flying around 40,000 feet, with a 17-ton, 100-inch diameter infrared telescope, scientists can see far more than with any ground-based telescope. SOFIA, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, launches from Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., and is the largest airborne observatory in the world.
Blessing’s mission did not involve any particular scientific research, other than to watch and learn, and bring back the knowledge and excitement to students. During her 9 1/2-hour flight in late May, she watched a team from Cornell University study galaxies with black holes and their nearby star formation, and another team examining the creation of a nebula of 10,000 stars in space.
“It’s a hands-on view of how scientific research is done,” Blessing said, “and you bring back the information to our kids.” Blessing, a teacher for 29 years, also took a flight in 1995 on SOFIA’s predecessor, the Kuiper Airborne Observatory.
The official SOFIA Web site has all sorts of neat information, images and video.