Science in the Middle

doing 6th grade science – outside the box!

SOFIA Flight 241, science at its best

on September 28, 2015

In the preflight briefing Thursday , we learned that the same flight director, pilots, and instrument scientists would be on the mission.

Sitting in the pre-flight briefing

Sitting in the pre-flight briefing

Having had a tour of the MCF and instrument lab between the flights gave us a greater appreciation for the advanced engineering, exacting lab conditions, and specific nature of the each scientific instrument. Now we felt more comfortable with the NASA folks, knew their names and jobs, and understood just how much they embraced our being there.

April boards SOFIA

April boards SOFIA

Even R2D2 came with us on the flights!

Even R2D2 came with us on the flights!

Manny with Coral outside SOFIA

Pilot Manny with Coral outside SOFIA

Mrs. Oltman with Pilot Jim Less

Mrs. Oltman with Pilot Jim Less

In fact Charlie, our light director, invited us to come see his office prior to the briefing.

Charlie Kaminski, our flight director, has operated the Mauna Kea telescope for two decades and wintered in Antarctica twice! A modest office for such an accomplished scientist.

Charlie Kaminski, our flight director, has operated the Mauna Kea telescope for two decades and wintered in Antarctica twice! A modest office for such an accomplished scientist.

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One of our last looks at the hangar, with its puzzling sets of doors!

I had a feeling this night would be even better, despite the VIPs not being with us.

Several reports are given in the briefing, including a mechanical report. We hear that a simple metal rod was broken – it was one component of a maintenance door under the plane. This could possibly have allowed the door to come open during flight. Therefore the mechanics had to fix it prior to takeoff. There was a possibility that the flight would be cancelled if they could not fix the door. So a small simple part – a metal rod – could cause advanced science to be put on hold until it was fixed. Manny, our pilot, calmly stated that he wasn’t worried, so no one else should be concerned, either. The weather report sounded great for flying.

Fortunately for SOFIA’s  241st flight, the skilled mechanics were able to fix the problem and the flight was a go!

German scientists from DSI joined us on this trip to perform testing on the telescope. They used a focal plane imager to get visual images of targets, while FORCAST took infrared images and data. The instrument scientists and the German telescope team (Andy, Manual, Frederika and Tim) compare data and use it for the greatest precision to keep the stars and other targets in the best focus. For instance, if the star appears to be dancing, they will be able to compensate for this.  This is called adaptive optics.

Some of the German science team sat right behind the telescope operators Naru and Shannon.

Some of the German science team sat right behind the telescope operators Naru and Shannon.

Unexpected weather – Severe thunderstorms over KS / CO caused us to divert from our path a bit!  The seatbelt light was on. We did need to cease walking around and experimenting and abide by the safety protocols.

The storm was 10 miles away and we were only 2 miles over it but it is important to stay quite a distance away, as lightning is not always cloud-to-ground but could be cloud-to-plane. Having the plane be struck with lightning was definitely something to avoid! On the path away from storms, we could see lightning dramatically illuminate the clouds from below – it was quite a light show, both beautiful and terrifying, like nothing we could ever imagine and would likely not see again.

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Ice water was timed to determine how long it would take condensation to form at 16% humidity inside the cabin. It never formed!

Magnetic filing patterns were observed

Magnetic filing patterns were observed

April and I conducted more experiments, including the inflation of a balloon on the ground and at maximum altitude. We also experimented with magnets and Mike and April recorded data on radiation at time intervals throughout the flight.

Mike and April track radiation data.

Mike and April track radiation data.

Listening on the headsets as always, we continued to learn from the conversations taking place on various channels, even when there were problems. Some software appeared to have a glitch and the Systems engineer had to work with the scientists , telescope operators and mission director to figure out what happened and reboot it all.

Jeff and I at the EPO console during takeoff.

Jeff and I at the EPO console during takeoff.

There was another instance when the target object was emitting the same energy frequency as the nebula it was in. Hearing the scientists talk through issues, share ideas, and problem solve were great lessons alongside the highly advanced astrophysics that was taking place. Like I’ve said many times, it’s about much, much more than the content!

There are two people on board who maintain all of the safety procedures and perform various other mechanical (as well as menial) jobs. Cary, one of the safety techs on board – worked 35 years in avionics, a lot of electrical work, and did the wiring for the space shuttle program. Now he flies to be sure the plane is safe, that people follow safety protocols, and he also works as a mechanic. There are limits to how often he can fly, as there is a mandatory day of rest after a flight. A flight day can be a 14 hour day!

Safety procedures are always explained prior to takeoff, even though we had extensive egress training on Monday. Flight director Charlie ands safety techs Cary and Juan.

Safety procedures are always explained prior to takeoff, even though we had extensive egress training on Monday. (L-R) Flight director Charlie, safety techs Cary and Juan. The spiral staircase to the cockpit is behind Juan!

This job does not require a college degree, but he has the right background and experience of knowing planes and working in aviation for many years that qualifies him for this job.  He must record anything out of the ordinary in a log that stays on the plane. The next crew that gets on the plane reads the log to know the status of the previous flight and its systems. There are two safety techs on each flight and there are several more of them, They rotate who is on what flight. Juan is the other safety tech.

At certain points on the flight, the German contingent tested the telescope for only a few minutes. They performed this a few times.

We again saw the Northern Lights when we flew at latitudes near the Arctic Circle! I visited the cockpit (getting permission first!)  The curtains of green appeared faintly in the east and then grew in to large waves of green. At times there were bright curtains, green with pink and white, shimmering, rippling and dancing. Two sections of a curtain rippled towards each other as if to close. In the distance the aurorae outlined a shape looking like a hill in the distance. You just had to enjoy this live. Photography out the window didn’t work so well, but Jeff, a fellow ambassador, took a video through the night vision goggles as seen in the picture.

The aurora borealis or Northern Lights.

The aurora borealis or Northern Lights.

The pilots who had been in the southern hemisphere in New Zealand thought they had seen a fantastic light show there, but stated that tonights aurorae rivaled that.

More auroras!

More auroras!

Now on to the science being conducted by the telescope -watching stars being born in a star forming region in the constellation Perseus, a red giant star nearing the end of its life cycle, and another red giant star in the constellation Taurus. The late stage red giant star was busy expelling dust and gas and the scientific investigation was to look for carbon structures called buckminsterfullerenes, or fullerenes for short, being given off by oxygen rich sources.  Did you know chemistry of stellar objects can be done by analyzing gases? The spectra can show us what elements are present!

Who knew that infrared data could be so visually exciting!

Who knew that infrared data could be so visually exciting!

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This is at 4:20 am as the 747 landed at Armstrong. Still awake!

Observation of warm black body in space – an asteroid – 62 Erato – will help us understand the distribution of water in the early solar system determined by mineral makeup of the asteroid . The location of this asteroid is the middle to outer asteroid belt. This research seemed to come from the presence of water altered meteorites on earth’s surface. Once again, Andrew and Joe were at the science console, answering questions, and trying to trouble shoot anomalies along the way.

We learned that Jim had even performed a science experiment on air pressure right in the cockpit!

We learned that Jim had even performed a science experiment on air pressure right in the cockpit!

Our final full day with the SOFIA team was first of all, sleeping in “as late as possible” due to our 4:15 a.m. touchdown and 5:30 a.m. arrival back at the hotel.  It is astounding that with the adrenaline and excitement of being part of these flights, it was actually no problem at all to stay awake all night on these flights, then operate the next day on a less than full night’s sleep. (I would estimate I got about 5 hours of sleep.)

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A few of the planes at Blackbird Park

Friday morning we went out to lunch and then headed over to Blackbird Park to check out the outdoor museum of scientific and military planes and artifacts. Of course, the was a blackbird, a F-16, navy planes, air force planes, NASA planes, and training modules.  There was a small crew trainer for the purpose of familiarizing pilots with new instrumentation for a jet.  There was also a space shuttle ejection test module. DSCN1505

The gift shop had some friendly military vets who were happy to talk to us more, recommend some good books or DVDs for the classroom, etc. They were also quite interested in how we teachers were selected for the SOFIA program.

After a rest at the hotel, we joined back up with our escort, Coral, for a photo sharing and brainstorming session about the week. This was a terrific brainstorming structure designed to get the maximum of sharing and ideas out in the open. We talked about experiences big and small, what we would change, the people we met, the cities and buildings we were in.IMG_0183

There were a river of ideas and nuggets from our experiences this week coming out of the insatiable minds and talkative mouths of the four teachers around the table! This could have gone on for a long time!  What a great list this will be to look back on, to make sure I won’t forget any moment of this fantastic week of learning and sharing.

For dinner, several local non-chain restaurants were suggested to us. This group wanted something new, something we couldn’t get back home. The one we chose was a Peruvian restaurant which, after much searching around with the maps app, we realized was closed.  As Andrew, one of the mission scientists was meeting us, we took his suggestion to go to a hole in the wall creole restaurant called Esther’s.  Apparantly there is a connection to the wall town of Eunice, Louisiana.  It was inexpensive, authentic and delicious!  Some of the food we ordered included gumbo, blackened red snapper, red beans and rice, and of course, a couple orders of beignets for dessert.

Beignets in California? You bet!

Beignets in California? You bet!

I continued to be amazed at the fact that the scientists would choose to break bread with us and socialize when they were off the clock and free to do whatever they wished. This is one of the intangible aspects of being a SOFIA ambassador that makes me feel like I can take on more risk or stick out my neck for a more visible way to impact science education on a broader scale.  It is hard to put words to how this has elevated my self-worth as a science educator.

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You can tell there was a geologic event in the past – not to mention the sedimentary layers!

Saturday morning, it was time to head to the airport. However, being  efficient and overachieving teachers, there was yet MORE science to do!  Around the time of passing near the San Andreas fault, at which there is a massive offset in the road cut due to an earthquake, we appeared to, ahem, have “car trouble” which caused us to pull over on the shoulder of the road.  Amazing geology! Layers of sedimentary rock and a visible offset awed us!

The final scientific thing we did was get out some parts to a kit to detect sources of energy within the infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.  A solar panel, some wires, a remote control, a cellphone camera, a fan, and other items provided a few quick science demos from the middle seat of a minivan on our way to LAX.  I won’t explain the experiments here, but if you ask me about them – or my colleagues – we will be happy to demonstrate them for you!

Since our fun meter buttons indicated decreasing levels of fun, we were in need of an adrenaline rush. A huge traffic jam, threatening our timely arrival for our 12:50 p.m. flight provided that source of energy!  With boarding passes, TSA pre-clearance and a boldness to get in the VIP line to check our bags – we made it to the gate with literally minutes to spare, as the passengers were lined up and boarding.

One week – about 150 hours – provided enough adrenaline, food, science, professional development, social and professional interactions, camaraderie, fun and hopefully sleep to carry us filled with fresh perspectives and relevant connections to last for a long, long time. Best people, best views, ideal weather, bringing out the best in me, best professional learning.

SOFIA, may you have a fruitful twenty years of missions, and would that you would carry one of my students in their future science capacity on your manifest! Thank you for the ride of our life!

IMG_9911credit to Coral Clark, Jeff Killebrew, Mike Shinaberry, and April Whitt for their contributions of photos and expertise in the blog!

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