Over the years, top military brass, tech executives and even U.S. presidents have flown into Silicon Valley by landing at Moffett Field.
But a different kind of visitor arrived in town Friday, Oct. 18, when a jet airliner touched down at Moffett just before dawn. In this case, the visiting luminary that people were lining up to see was the airplane itself.
The plane, a heavily modified 747 jet, is best known as SOFIA, or the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy. In the annals of astronomy, the plane is a star in its own right. For nearly 10 years, the research plane has jetted around the globe collecting data on comets, planets and other interstellar bodies that can only be observed by ascending to Earth's stratosphere.
The Friday visit to the NASA Ames Research Center was more sentimental than scientific. SOFIA was visiting to mark the 80th anniversary of Ames, and the plane's arrival was more like a "homecoming," said project scientist Naseem Rangwala.
About half of the 200 employees who work on the SOFIA mission are centered at NASA Ames, and research park has long been considered the project's base of operations, where its images are processed and analyzed. By its nature as a roving observatory, SOFIA is constantly on the move, and its last visit to Ames was about eight years ago, Rangwala said.
"It's really nice to bring SOFIA back to its family here at Ames," Rangwala said. "SOFIA is a great asset that helps us understand many questions about the universe."
Like many other high-end telescopes in NASA's portfolio, SOFIA can't keep up with the demand for research data. On average, the plane is up in the air 140 times a year collecting telescope imagery. But that flight schedule still only provides enough time for about one out of six research projects that want to use SOFIA, according to NASA officials.
SOFIA is one of the only infrared telescopes available to astronomers, which allows observation of objects that might otherwise be blocked by space dust or gases. Earlier this year, the telescope was integral to the interstellar discovery of clouds of helium hydride, which is considered the first molecule formed following the big bang, the cosmic explosion theorized to have been the start of the universe.
Tours of the SOFIA aircraft are open to the public on a first-come, first-serve basis on Saturday, Oct. 19. Anyone interested can sign up at NASA's events page at www.nasa.gov/ames/event.