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Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA)

A white airplane with a NASA logo takes off from a runway.
Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA)
Credit: NASA

Telescope Details



A Boeing 747SP aircraft, modified to carry a telescope and cameras


SOFIA flies into the stratosphere at 11,582-13,716 meters (38,000-45,000 feet), above 99% of Earth’s infrared-blocking atmosphere, allowing astronomers to study the solar system and beyond in ways that are not possible with ground-based telescopes. During overnight flights, SOFIA gathers data on subjects such as star birth and death, formation of new solar systems, celestial magnetic fields and black holes at the center of galaxies.

NIST’s role:

Design, fabrication and testing of superconducting electronics for the High-resolution Airborne Wideband Camera Plus (HAWC+), which detects far-infrared light emitted by celestial dust grains, invisible to human eyes. These grains align perpendicularly to magnetic fields. From the SOFIA results, astronomers can map the shape and infer the strength of the otherwise invisible magnetic field, helping to visualize this fundamental force of nature.

Significant discoveries:

Recent HAWC+ results provided unprecedented information about the strong magnetic field at the center of the Milky Way galaxy, helping scientists understand the differences between active and quiet black holes.

Operated by:

NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Palmdale, California. SOFIA is made possible through a partnership between NASA and the German Aerospace Center.


Greenish circular plate has square section in the middle.
NIST amplifiers used in SOFIA camera
Credit: NIST
Created October 1, 2021, Updated March 11, 2024