Nasa 'Flying Observatory' Officially Showcased, Features 17-Ton Infrared Telescope Mounted in a Boeing 747
Nasa's Sofia 'Flying Observatory' will enable astronomers to record infrared images of celestial occurrences. NASA / Jim Ross

American space research agency Nasa, which has set a 2021 take-off target for its most ambitious Manned Mars Mission, has now shown off a 17-tonne telescope that is mounted on a Boeing 747 jetliner.

Nasa terms the huge telescope Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (Sofia), and as the name itself suggests, the 17-tonne telescope will be used to capture infrared images of stars and heavenly bodies.

Sofia, along with the Boeing 747 jetliner, forms an entire 'Flying Observatory,' which gives astronomers an edge over conventional ground-mounted telescopes. With Sofia, astronomers will be able to conduct effective study of 'mysterious' events such as supernova occurrences and extraterrestrial activities like comets passing by earth.

'Data provided by Sofia cannot be obtained by any other astronomical facility on the ground or in space," states Nasa in a press release.

According to Nasa, the 'Flying Observatory', after take-off, can stay in the air for as long as 12 hours and can cover a maximum distance of 6,625 nautical miles between takeoff and landing.

'Flying Observatory' is also said to be capable of attaining heights up to 45,00 feet, which means that it should easily fly over the troposphere, bypassing the 99.8% water vapour content that the earth's atmosphere holds.

Generally, astronomers using ground-mounted infrared telescopes get unclear or blurred images as water vapour tends to obscure infrared light emitted by various heavenly bodies.

However, with Sofia's s 8-foot telescope having the mobility edge and boosted to a great altitude by the Boeing 747 jet, astronomers should get clear infrared images of celestial bodies/events.

Within the Boeing jetliner, Sofia sits behind a 16-by-23 feet sliding door that slides across to expose the telescope once a reasonable altitude (pre-programmed by scientists) is attained, states a Wired report. Sofia then, captures infrared images and transmits these recordings to Nasa's space center on earth.

Sofia 'Flying Observatory' is a joint venture of Nasa and the German Aerospace Center and the organisations expect to keep the observatory hovering in the troposphere for at least 20 years.

Currently, Sofia has been declared operational by Nasa, and the infrared 'Flying Observatory' is likely to officially take off by 2015.