Harmony curriculum director joins NASA on the edges of space

(Note: The following account was shared by Levant Sakar, Curriculum Diroector for Physics, Technology Applications & CTE at Harmony Public Schools following his successful flight aboard the largest airborne observatory, named SOFIA [Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy]. NASA and the SETI INstitute are currenntly taking applications for 2019-2020 participants to the program. To apply or learn more, click here.)


As a liaison of the Airborne Astronomy Ambassador (AAA) program by NASA, I am one of the luckiest educators across the country to fly on the seventh cycle of NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) plane within the partnership between Harmony Public Schools and SETI Institute.

The SETI Institute is responsible to NASA for conducting the AAA education program that exploits the unique inspirational attributes of the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) to improve science teaching and enhance student standards-based classroom outcomes.

After successful completion of professional development in connection with AAA participation (25 hours of self-paced online training, 2 hours per month of teleconferences & webinars, and 8 in-person hours full-day workshop in Dallas), I traveled to SOFIA’s base in Palmdale, California for the flight week.

Before the fly on the converted Boeing 747, we got intensive professional training and working out of NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Palmdale, California. I received egress training, science briefing, and mission briefing.

The mission of the flight is to conduct research, submitted years in advance from scientists representing the world’s leading universities.

We also met with NASA experts in areas including astrophysics, planetary science, and engineering experts. They gained insights to share with their students regarding the many specialties that come together to make a complex NASA mission like Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) successful. SOFIA staff led us on tours of the SOFIA Mirror Coating Facility, Preflight Integration Facility (science instrument lab), the science aircraft hangar, and the observatory aircraft.

The mission is completed, now it is time to enrich the HPS Physics curriculum with NASA science-oriented electromagnetic spectrum and infrared astronomy module developed by the SETI Institute AAA program staff. The AAA’s first-hand experiences will also enlighten the wide variety of STEM career paths available to students.

SOFIA, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, is a Boeing 747SP aircraft modified to carry a 2.7-meter (106-inch) reflecting telescope (with an effective diameter of 2.5 meters or 100 inches). Flying into the stratosphere at 38,000-45,000 feet puts SOFIA above 99 percent of Earth’s infrared-blocking atmosphere, allowing astronomers to study the solar system and beyond in ways that are not possible with ground-based telescopes. SOFIA is made possible through a partnership between NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR)

During 10-hour, overnight flights, SOFIA observes the solar system and beyond at mid- and far-infrared wavelengths gathering data to study:

  • Star birth and death
  • Formation of new solar systems
  • Identification of complex molecules in space
  • Planets, comets, and asteroids in our solar system
  • Nebulas and galaxies
  • Celestial magnetic fields
  • Black holes at the center of galaxies

In the flight plan, there were 10 important legs in which the SOFIA scientists made researches about red giant stars, red supergiant stars, a comet, a galaxy with an active nucleus and the Westbrook Nebula. While one of the red giant stars is 24,000 light-years away, the comet is 6.5 light-minutes away as a distance from the earth.

Here are some of the highlights from 10 hours of flight duration;

  • We started setting up the telescope with the star Hipparcos 11318(d ~ 700 light-years)
  • HD 166191 (d ~ 330 light-years). HD 166191 is a young star that is surrounded by a dusty ‘debris disk’ indicating a planetary system in the late stages of formation.
  • Comet 2018 W2 Africano (d ~ 6.5 light-minutes) is apparently inbound from the Oort Cloud, but planetary perturbations have made its orbit hyperbolic, so it will leave the Solar System permanently. (A bright, dusty comet provides an important opportunity to obtain high-quality spectra that cover the mid- and far-IR wavelengths of the crystalline silicate features.)
  • Star Gamma Draconis (d ~ 150 light-years) is used as a calibration source
  • HD 175588 (d ~ 740 light-years) is a long-period variable red giant star.
  • IRAS 20000+3239  (d ~ 24,000 light-years) is an other long-period variable red giant star.
  • RAFGL 618 (d ~ 3,000 light-years) is a cloud of gas & dust expelled by a star at the end of its red giant stage. Also known as the Westbrook Nebula.
  • HD 35601 (d ~ 10,000 light-years) is a long-period variable red supergiant star.
  • IRAS 05589+2828 (d ~ 440 million light-years) is a Seyfert galaxy, a galaxy with a type of active nucleus (AGN; central supermassive black hole).
  • BD +59 38 (d ~ 6,100 light-years) is a long-period variable red supergiant star.
  • HD 23475 (d ~ 670 light-years) is a long-period variable red giant star

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