NASA used a Boeing 747 rigged with a massive telescope to discover water on the moon — take a look at SOFIA

NASA just discovered molecular water on the moon, and humans didn’t even need to be there to find it. 

Scientists on Monday announced the finding of frozen H20 on the moon with data acquired from NASA’s flying observatory, a heavily-modified Boeing 747SP. The Jumbo Jet comes equipped with a 2.7-meter far-infrared telescope capable of peering deep into space and seeing with infrared what cannot be seen with visible light.

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA for short, can be found flying around in the darkest hours of the night with its telescope pointed to the stars. Soaring as high as 45,000 feet on some missions, the telescope enjoys fewer obstructions than its counterparts on the ground.

The discovery is a major milestone for NASA’s Artemis mission that will see humans return to the moon by 2024 and eventually Mars. Previously untouched planets in the final frontier will soon be welcoming their first humans if the program is successful. 

Take a closer look at SOFIA, the Boeing 747 that just found water on the moon.

Meet SOFIA, short for Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, one of many aircraft that NASA employs for research missions.

NASA Boeing 747SP SOFIA
NASA’s Boeing 747SP flying observatory nicknamed “SOFIA.”

Read More: NASA operates a fleet of Gulfstream private jets used to shuttle astronauts and conduct research missions – take a closer look

Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

While it may look like a normal airliner on the outside, this Boeing 747SP, or 747 Special Performance, hides a secret in the form of a 2.7-meter reflecting far-infrared telescope.

NASA Boeing 747SP SOFIA
NASA’s Boeing 747SP flying observatory nicknamed “SOFIA.”

Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

It’s the largest aerial observatory in the world allowing NASA to get unobstructed views of the final frontier from high above Earth’s surface.

NASA Boeing 747SP SOFIA
NASA’s Boeing 747SP flying observatory nicknamed “SOFIA.”

Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

While the scientific community has similar telescopes on the ground across the globe, SOFIA can soar above any potential obstructions in our atmosphere such as water vapor, which emits infrared radiation.

NASA Boeing 747SP SOFIA
NASA’s Boeing 747SP flying observatory nicknamed “SOFIA.”

Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

A typical altitude for the jet is 45,000 feet, high in the troposphere above even most commercial jet traffic.

NASA Boeing 747SP SOFIA
NASA’s Boeing 747SP flying observatory nicknamed “SOFIA.”

Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

The 10-hour science flights are also flown at night for that reason, as water vapor is lower than during the day. The longer the night, the better.

NASA Boeing 747SP SOFIA
NASA’s Boeing 747SP flying observatory nicknamed “SOFIA.”

Source: CNN and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

The mobile telescope can observe happenings over areas where placing a ground-based telescope wouldn’t be possible such as oceans or harsh terrain.

NASA Boeing 747SP SOFIA
NASA’s Boeing 747SP flying observatory nicknamed “SOFIA.”

Once airborne, this door at the back of the fuselage opens for an unobstructed line of sight.

NASA Boeing 747SP SOFIA
NASA’s Boeing 747SP flying observatory nicknamed “SOFIA.”

This isn’t a quarter-operated telescope with someone peering through at the other end. Rather, this telescope sees in infrared wavelengths to see what can’t be observed with visible light.

NASA Boeing 747SP SOFIA
NASA’s Boeing 747SP flying observatory nicknamed “SOFIA.”

Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

That includes star formations…

NASA SOFIA Images
Images from NASA’s Boeing 747SP flying observatory nicknamed “SOFIA.”

Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

Distant nebulae…

NASA SOFIA Images
Images from NASA’s Boeing 747SP flying observatory nicknamed “SOFIA.”

Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

And star forming regions.

NASA SOFIA Images
Images from NASA’s Boeing 747SP flying observatory nicknamed “SOFIA.”

Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

Infrared can even see through obscurations, such as dust clouds.

NASA Boeing 747SP SOFIA
NASA’s Boeing 747SP flying observatory nicknamed “SOFIA.”

Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

Another benefit of the telescope is its ability to be updated with the latest technology more often than space-based telescopes.

NASA Boeing 747SP SOFIA
NASA’s Boeing 747SP flying observatory nicknamed “SOFIA.”

Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

As SOFIA returns to the ground after every 10-hour flight, it can constantly be updated. space-based telescopes, however, cannot.

NASA Boeing 747SP SOFIA
NASA’s Boeing 747SP flying observatory nicknamed “SOFIA.”

Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

The hundreds of seats that once filled this plane have been replaced with millions of dollars worth of technology aiding in space exploration.

NASA Boeing 747SP SOFIA
NASA’s Boeing 747SP flying observatory nicknamed “SOFIA.”

Though based in California between the Armstrong Flight Research Center and Ames Research Center, this Boeing 747SP’s subscribes to the “have plane, will travel” mantra.

NASA Boeing 747SP SOFIA
NASA’s Boeing 747SP flying observatory nicknamed “SOFIA.”

Deployments often see the aircraft and its telescope venture to the Southern Hemisphere during the change of the seasons to take advantage of the longer nights.

NASA Boeing 747SP SOFIA
NASA’s Boeing 747SP flying observatory nicknamed “SOFIA.”

While the aircraft itself is incredibly unique, the 747SP also has a fascinating history.

NASA Boeing 747SP SOFIA
NASA’s Boeing 747SP flying observatory nicknamed “SOFIA.”

The Boeing 747SP was first requested by Pan American World Airways for longer-range flights, greater than current 747 models at the time.

Pan American World Airways Boeing 747SP

This Boeing 747, which wears the registration number N747NA, was first acquired by Pan Am and then United Airlines before heading to NASA in 1997. Here’s what it looked like in United’s “Battleship Gray” livery before being painted in NASA colors.

NASA Boeing 747SP SOFIA
NASA’s Boeing 747SP flying observatory nicknamed “SOFIA.”

Source: Universities Space Research Association

This plane was built in 1977 and is now the largest flying telescope ever to be used by NASA.

NASA Boeing 747SP SOFIA
NASA’s Boeing 747SP flying observatory nicknamed “SOFIA.”

Source: Universities Space Research Association

Its acquisition was just the start of 13 years of installing the equipment and flight testing.

NASA Boeing 747SP SOFIA
NASA’s Boeing 747SP flying observatory nicknamed “SOFIA.”

And of course, a new cockpit was fashioned for the jet.

NASA Boeing 747SP SOFIA
NASA’s Boeing 747SP flying observatory nicknamed “SOFIA.”

Its first science flight took place on November 30, 2010.

NASA Boeing 747SP SOFIA
NASA’s Boeing 747SP flying observatory nicknamed “SOFIA.”

Source: Universities Space Research Association

Both an American and German flag flies on the aircraft as NASA and the German Aerospace Center jointly operate the plane.

NASA Boeing 747SP SOFIA
NASA’s Boeing 747SP flying observatory nicknamed “SOFIA.”

Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

The Boeing 747 isn’t the first aircraft to be used as an aerial telescope platform as the program dates back to 1965.

NASA Boeing 747SP SOFIA
NASA’s Boeing 747SP flying observatory nicknamed “SOFIA.”

Source: Universities Space Research Association

Aircraft ranging from Learjets to military transport aircraft were used before the current model was acquired.

NASA Boeing 747SP SOFIA
NASA’s Boeing 747SP flying observatory nicknamed “SOFIA.”

Source: Universities Space Research Association

In the decade that it’s been flying, over 100 research flights have been launched.

NASA Boeing 747SP SOFIA
NASA’s Boeing 747SP flying observatory nicknamed “SOFIA.”

Source: Universities Space Research Association

This is arguably the aircraft’s most consequential discovery to date.

NASA Boeing 747SP SOFIA
NASA’s Boeing 747SP flying observatory nicknamed “SOFIA.”

NASA expects to keep the plane flying for at least 20 years from its launch.

NASA Boeing 747SP SOFIA
NASA’s Boeing 747SP flying observatory nicknamed “SOFIA.”

If humans do eventually go back to the moon, a Boeing 747 will have helped get us there.

NASA Boeing 747SP SOFIA
NASA’s Boeing 747SP flying observatory nicknamed “SOFIA.”

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