GALWAY – Two local teachers got the opportunity of a lifetime this past weekend when they took to the sky and gazed at the stars on NASA’s airborne observatory, SOFIA.
Galway Central School District first grade teacher Edie Frisbie and Earth science teacher Paul Levin flew with NASA research scientists onboard the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), the world’s only flying observatory, on March 4. They made two trips on SOFIA, taking of from one the craft’s two home bases in Palmdale, CA.
For Frisbie and Levin, it was an occasion long in the making. The two educators were given the opportunity though the Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors Program, a program put together by the SETI Institute, a non-profit organization committed to public outreach and scientific education, in conjunction with NASA. Frisbie and Levin first submitted their proposal for why they should to fly on SOFIA all the way back in December 2014, and were finally chosen to fly a year ago in March 2016.
“It was one of the best trips I have ever taken,” Levin said. “There were so many different things we saw and experience. We got to meet the scientist who discovered the black hole, sat through NASA preflight briefings… Everyone on the plane had a great backstory and they were all willing to share with us.”
“It was the single most amazing experience of my entire life,” Frisbie said.
Part the educators’ involvement with the program was focused was performing community outreach to share information about astronomy and SOFIA, both with their students and with the public. Before their flights this weekend, Frisbie and Levin gave presentation to both of their classes, as well as at an event for the Capital Region Master Teaching Program. They are currently planning to give further presentations about infrared astronomy and other topics to the Eastern Section of the Science Teacher Association of New York State, at the Museum of Science and Innovation in Schenectady, and in their classrooms.
During Frisbie and Levin’s flights, the researchers onboard were using SOFIA’s telescope to investigate a number of things. Chiefly, mission of each flight was to observe star formations, in hopes of discovering why some galaxies are capable of creating naround 200 new stars in a year, while other galaxies like the Milky Way only produce about 10. Beyond that, they also observed supermassive black holes, one of Jupiter’s moons, Callisto, and M51, also known as the Whirlpool Galaxy.
Almost as striking as the images they were seeing to Frisbie and Levin was the passion of all the scientists involved. According to the two educators, all onboard had PhD’s, and were experts in the very specific things they were there to do, and their passion for what they were doing was clear.
“Without one of them,” Frisbie said. “The flight wouldn’t be possible.”
“From the pilot, to the safety engineers to the scientist,” Levin said. “Everyone was excited to be there and you could tell that they were having fun with what they were doing.”
SOFIA itself is a modified 747 aircraft, with the rear door cut out and replaced with an infrared telescope. Inside the craft, images viewed by the telescope are transmitted to a screen for the researchers onboard to observe. While Frisbie and Levin’s flights maxed out at 43,000 feet up, SOFIA is capable of going as high 45,000, the standard maximum height for a 747. The telescope that SOFIA is equipped with is appropriately state-of-the-art, as it is equipped the Far Infrared Field-Imaging Line Spectrometer, or FIFI-LS. Frisbie said that SOFIA’s is currently the only operational FIFI-LS in the entire world.
According to Frisbie, SOFIA, as a flying observatory, has many advantages over traditional sorts of observatories. Unlike ground-based locations, its view is not blocked by clouds or weather since it flies so high in the air. Additionally, unlike satellite-based observatories, which require costly and time-consuming space flights to update with new technology, SOFIA can be updated quickly and efficiently while on the ground.
Frisbie’s hope for their involvement with this program going forward is that it makes learning about space more concrete for their students, and inspires them to follow their dreams, whatever they may be.
“If someone from around here can do that,” Frisbie said. “You can do anything.”