The Washington Post

Herndon High School teacher flies in airborne observatory

In the night sky above the western United States, Cornell University’s George Gull, right, explains SOFIA’s infrared telescope to Herndon High School teacher Mary Blessing, left, with Cris DeWolf, from Chippewa Hills High School, and SOFIA’s Dana Backman. (Nicholas A. Veronico - NASA SOFIA)

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.

Standing on board SOFIA in front of the telescope are, from left to right: Mary Blessing, Herndon High School; Cris DeWolf, Chippewa Hills High School, Remus, Mich.; and astronomer Dana Backman, head of SOFIA’s education and public outreach. (Nicholas A. Veronico - NASA SOFIA)
Tom Jackman is a native of Northern Virginia and has been covering the region for The Post since 1998.
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