RIT Plays Important Role in NASA's Airplane-observatory

A jet plane mounted with a powerful telescope will soon give astronomers a closer platform to the heavens. Scientists will fly the skies aboard NASA’s largest airborne observatory to capture and process images of the universe, thanks to software developed at Rochester Institute of Technology.

When complete, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, will take flight in a modified Boeing 747SP airplane, equipped with a 2-meter telescope and a suite of infrared cameras and spectrometers. With these instruments, SOFIA will collect important new data about planets, stars and galaxies in the infrared region of the electromagnetic spectrum.

The University Space Research Association (USRA), an organization of more than 80 universities, manages the SOFIA project for NASA. RIT’s role is to design a system to manage, process and analyze data produced by SOFIA’s instruments.

An efficient way of handling astronomical data has long been the vision of Ian Gatley, director of the Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science (CIS) at RIT. He devised the concept of a data cycle system for SOFIA based on his experience managing systems such as SOFIA’s predecessor, NASA’s Kuiper Airborne Observatory, and a remote infrared observatory in Antarctica.

RIT’s Joel Kastner, associate professor of astronomical imaging and SOFIA data cycle system (DCS) deputy lead scientist, and Robert Krzaczek, CIS computer systems manager and DCS deputy lead engineer, are designing and developing the core of SOFIA’s data cycle system. The entire system is a multi-institutional effort managed by USRA.

The system will process and calibrate raw data, save the processed data to the SOFIA archive, and notify astronomers via e-mail when their data is processed and available for analysis. To achieve that level of complexity, the software must interface smoothly with the instruments, the aircraft and the data archive. This common interface will make the system user-friendly and useful to the entire astronomy community—a breakthrough in information-sharing.

Connecting different phases of data collection and analysis will streamline otherwise cumbersome methods for collecting and accessing data produced by the observatory. Successfully demonstrated last year in prototype form, the data cycle system will also generate predictions of what scientists might see through the telescope.

USRA recently extended its contract with RIT an additional two years.

More information about SOFIA is available on the Web site, www.sofia.arc.nasa.gov.


NOTE: The Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science, part of the College of Science at RIT, offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees and the nation’s only Ph.D. in imaging science. The research and teaching laboratories at the center, established in 1985, are dedicated to electronic imaging, digital image processing, remote sensing, medical imaging, color science, optics and chemical imaging.


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