Jennifer Carter, science teacher at Rowan County Senior High School and Claudett Edie, former RCSHS science teacher, are taking part in a unique program with NASA, flying on NASA’s airborne observatory, SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy.) Ms. Carter and Mrs. Edie are just two of the 26 educators that were chosen in January 2012 to fly and perform scientific observations on SOFIA. They were the only Kentucky educators selected for the program. As participants in the Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors program, Carter, Edie and their fellow educators are able to partner with professional astronomers using the SOFIA for scientific observations.
The SOFIA is a modified Boeing 747SP jetliner equipped with a 100-inch (2.5-meter) diameter 17-ton telescope. The observatory enables the analysis of infrared light to study the formation of stars and planets; chemistry of interstellar gases; composition of comets, asteroids and planets; and supermassive black holes at the center of galaxies.
"The unique design of SOFIA gives educators hands-on experience with world-class astronomical research," said John Gagosian, SOFIA program executive at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "Working with astronomers, educators participate in a research project from beginning to end and integrate that unique perspective with classroom lessons and public outreach programs."
“I understand that the selection was extremely rigorous so to be selected for this program is quite an honor,” said Ray Ginter, principal of Rowan County Senior High School. “Jennifer is setting a wonderful example for our students, helping them understand learning is not only important, it can also be an exciting and a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
After spending over a year and half preparing, researching and studying, Jennifer Carter and Claudett Edie, both impatient for their turn on SOFIA, got word in late August that their flight time on SOFIA had been scheduled for September 16 and September 18, 2013. (Federal budget cuts had delayed many of the flights for the Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors.)
During take-off on their flight on Monday, September 16th, Jennifer Carter was afforded the opportunity to sit in the cockpit with the pilots.
“That was incredible,” said Ms. Carter, who was speaking of seeing a sunset from two different vantage points. “So we were on the runway waiting to taxi and the bright orange sun hung low on the horizon. As we waited, I watched patiently as the sun sunk behind the distant mountains – it was gorgeous, but not nearly as beautiful as the next sunset I was about to see. As the plane ascended, the light in the cockpit began to brighten, and there it was – the sun. Only this time it was bright red and I could only see about half of it. I expected it to fall shortly, but it didn’t. The sun just kind of hung there for about 10 minutes. The pilot told me this was due to the rising altitude of the plane, and we were literally catching up with it as it was setting – so it appeared stationary!”
As educators aboard SOFIA, both Carter and Edie had the opportunity to observe and interact with the astronomers, mission directors, data analysts and technicians.
“There were eight planned legs in our journey each leg designated for a specific observation,” wrote Edie. “The first leg was dedicated to the calibration of the telescope’s pointing system while the rest were dedicated to science.”
The observations, which took place over the course of the 9 hour flight, took up to 4 or 5 hours, according to Edie, giving both Carter and Edie enough down time to do their own observations as well as take part in an interview with Pamela Harman, SOFIA Education program co-manager.
Click here to see a video of Jennifer Carter talking about the 34,000 pound telescope aboard SOFIA.