After 13 years of planning and building, NASA's latest high-flying telescope—seen above during an April test flight—opened its infrared eye for the first time last week from aboard a modified Boeing 747 jumbo jetliner.
The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, includes a 17-ton telescope, which can peer out, thanks to a sliding door cut into the rear of the aircraft's fuselage.
SOFIA fills an important niche in modern astronomy, according to mission managers. The unusual observatory is expected to be able to see 80 percent of the infrared light visible to space-based infrared telescopes, but at a fraction of the cost to launch and maintain. (Explore a telescope time line.)
"From its stratospheric perch, SOFIA is able to fly above 99 percent of the infrared-blocking water vapor in Earth's atmosphere," said Erick Young, SOFIA science mission operations director for the Universities Space Research Association (USRA).
"This allows us to observe targets in the night sky that are simply out of reach of ground-based telescopes."