Kuiper Airborne Observatory
The Gerard P. Kuiper
Gerard Peter Kuiper , Netherlands – December 24, 1973, Mexico City) was a Dutch-American astronomer after whom the Kuiper belt was named.-Early life:...
Airborne Observatory (KAO) was a national facility operated by NASA
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is the agency of the United States government that is responsible for the nation's civilian space program and for aeronautics and aerospace research...
to support research in infrared astronomy
Infrared astronomy is the branch of astronomy and astrophysics that studies astronomical objects visible in infrared radiation. The wavelength of infrared light ranges from 0.75 to 300 micrometers...
. The observation platform
An airborne observatory is an airplane or balloon with an astronomical telescope. By carrying the telescope high, the telescope can avoid cloud cover, pollution, and carry out observations in the infrared spectrum, above water vapor in the atmosphere which absorbs infrared radiation.Examples of...
was a highly modified C-141A jet transport aircraft with a range of 6,000 nautical miles (11,000 km), capable of conducting research operations up to 48,000 feet (14 km).
The KAO was based at the Ames Research Center, NAS Moffett Field
Moffett Federal Airfield
Moffett Federal Airfield , also known as Moffett Field, is a joint civil-military airport located between northern Mountain View and northern Sunnyvale, California, USA. The airport is near the south end of San Francisco Bay, northwest of San Jose. Formerly a United States Navy facility, the former...
, in Sunnyvale, California
Sunnyvale is a city in Santa Clara County, California, United States. It is one of the major cities that make up the Silicon Valley located in the San Francisco Bay Area...
. It began operation in 1974 as a replacement for an earlier aircraft, the Galileo Observatory, a converted Convair CV-990
The Convair 990 Coronado was a narrow-body jet airliner produced by the Convair division of General Dynamics, a "stretched" version of their earlier Convair 880 produced in response to a request from American Airlines. The 990 was lengthened by 10 feet, which increased the number of passengers from...
(N711NA), that was destroyed in a collision with a U.S. Navy P-3C Orion patrol aircraft in 1973.
The KAO's telescope was a conventional Cassegrain reflector
The Cassegrain reflector is a combination of a primary concave mirror and a secondary convex mirror, often used in optical telescopes and radio antennas....
with a 36-inch (91.5 cm) aperture
In optics, an aperture is a hole or an opening through which light travels. More specifically, the aperture of an optical system is the opening that determines the cone angle of a bundle of rays that come to a focus in the image plane. The aperture determines how collimated the admitted rays are,...
, designed primarily for observations in the 1 to 500 μm
A micrometer , is by definition 1×10-6 of a meter .In plain English, it means one-millionth of a meter . Its unit symbol in the International System of Units is μm...
spectral range. Its flight capability allowed it to rise above almost all of the water vapor
Water vapor or water vapour , also aqueous vapor, is the gas phase of water. It is one state of water within the hydrosphere. Water vapor can be produced from the evaporation or boiling of liquid water or from the sublimation of ice. Under typical atmospheric conditions, water vapor is continuously...
in the Earth's atmosphere (allowing observations of infrared
Infrared light is electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength longer than that of visible light, measured from the nominal edge of visible red light at 0.74 micrometres , and extending conventionally to 300 µm...
radiation, which is blocked before reaching ground-based facilities), as well as travel to almost any point on the Earth's surface for an observation.
The KAO made several major discoveries, including the first sightings of the rings
A planetary ring is a ring of cosmic dust and other small particles orbiting around a planet in a flat disc-shaped region.The most notable planetary rings known in Earth's solar system are those around Saturn, but the other three gas giants of the solar system possess ring systems of their...
Uranus is the seventh planet from the Sun. It has the third-largest planetary radius and fourth-largest planetary mass in the Solar System. It is named after the ancient Greek deity of the sky Uranus , the father of Cronus and grandfather of Zeus...
in 1977 and a definitive identification of an atmosphere on Pluto
Pluto, formal designation 134340 Pluto, is the second-most-massive known dwarf planet in the Solar System and the tenth-most-massive body observed directly orbiting the Sun...
in 1988. The KAO was used to study the origin and distribution of water and organic molecules in regions of star formation
Star formation is the process by which dense parts of molecular clouds collapse into a ball of plasma to form a star. As a branch of astronomy star formation includes the study of the interstellar medium and giant molecular clouds as precursors to the star formation process and the study of young...
, and in the vast spaces between the stars. Kuiper astronomers also studied the disks surrounding certain stars that may be related to the formation of planetary systems around these stars.
Peering still deeper into space, KAO astronomers studied powerful far-infrared emissions from the center of our galaxy and other galaxies. Scientists onboard the KAO tracked the formation of heavy elements like iron, nickel, and cobalt from the massive fusion reactions of supernova
A supernova is a stellar explosion that is more energetic than a nova. It is pronounced with the plural supernovae or supernovas. Supernovae are extremely luminous and cause a burst of radiation that often briefly outshines an entire galaxy, before fading from view over several weeks or months...
SN 1987A was a supernova in the outskirts of the Tarantula Nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a nearby dwarf galaxy. It occurred approximately 51.4 kiloparsecs from Earth, approximately 168,000 light-years, close enough that it was visible to the naked eye. It could be seen from the Southern...
The KAO was retired in 1995 and is viewable at Moffett Field, although it is no longer airworthy. It has been succeeded by a Boeing 747
The Boeing 747 is a wide-body commercial airliner and cargo transport, often referred to by its original nickname, Jumbo Jet, or Queen of the Skies. It is among the world's most recognizable aircraft, and was the first wide-body ever produced...
-based airborne observatory equipped with a larger aperture telescope, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy
Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy
The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy is a joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center to construct and maintain an airborne observatory. NASA awarded the contract for the development of the aircraft, operation of the observatory and management of the American part of the...
(SOFIA). SOFIA completed its first test flight on April 26, 2007 and its telescope saw first light on May 26, 2010. Initial "routine" science observation flights began in December 2010 and the observatory is slated for full capability by 2014 with about 100 flights per year.