Ever wonder how astronomers account for the strange effects our beloved atmosphere has on their astronomical calculations? If so, climb aboard the Kuiper Airborne Observatory, or KAO, which gained its name no less than 35 years ago. The KAO may resemble an ordinary Lockheed military plane, but with its 36-inch telescope, it is capable of conducting in-depth astronomical analyses.
Unlike earth-bound telescopes, the KAO is capable of reaching altitudes above 98 per cent of the Earth’s water vapour. This allows it to conduct analysis on the infrared spectrum, which is typically absorbed by the water vapour in the lower level of our atmosphere.
While budding young astrophysicists may point out that balloon-borne telescopes can readily reach the stratosphere and survey large areas of the sky, the KAO has its advantages. Primarily, the KAO allows for detailed observations using the particular wavelength brightness of young stars. What’s more, its eight-hour mission time allows it to travel around the world to capture time-sensitive solar system observations. Most importantly, the scientists are able to fly aboard the KAO, and can therefore avoid mission abortion if the equipment should malfunction.
Among its many scientific discoveries, the KAO assisted in the discovery of Uranus’ nine slender rings in 1977 while flying over the Indian Ocean en route from Australia. Its aerial observations also detected water in the thick Jupiterian atmosphere, and the definitive presence of atmosphere around the recently relegated dwarf planet, Pluto.
In terms of elementary discoveries, the KAO was used to analyze the origin and scattering of organic and water molecules between stars, as well as observing the creation of heavy elements such as iron, nickel, and cobalt in the fusion reactions of Supernova 1987A.
The most important of its contributions stem around infrared galactic and star birth analysis, which were virtually unknown prior to the KAO’s existence due to the limited access to infrared investigations. In particular, KAO’s discovery of the existence and importance of dust in the development of embryonic stars, and subsequent formation of their planetary systems, gave way to planetary formation hypotheses. The KAO was also able to study great infrared emissions not only at the centre of our galaxy, but also those surrounding ours. What’s more, while it was never empirically proven, the KAO found evidence of a massive black hole at the center of the Milky Way.
In addition to being of great assistance in conducting scientific discoveries, the KAO’s airborne qualities have allowed NASA to conduct gravity-free simulations. By flying at an inclined level, KAO is able to mimic the lack of gravitational force astronauts experience in space.
Over its 20 years of service under the leadership of Carl Gillespie and Jim McClenahan, the KAO completed 1,417 flights, the bulk of them from NASA’s Ames Research Center. The KAO was decommissioned in 1995, no longer being deemed flight-worthy. While the KAO’s near future most certainly lies in being displayed at Smithsonian Museums, its successor, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, recently completed its Open-Door Flight Tests this past August. The installation and testing of the remaining research system will be completed by the end of the year. Once the observatory begins flying infrared science missions, it will fly three to four nights per week, reaching approximately 960 research hours per year.
Continuing on KAO’s accomplishments, next week we will immerse ourselves in the wonders of a comet the KAO observed during specialized research projects in 1995. Until then, the night sky awaits your adventures.