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Thursday, 15 May 2014 00:00

Yerkes Observatory educator taking astronomy study to new heights

Written by  Lisa M. Schmelz
Vivian Hoette, education and outreach director at Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, recently flew on NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy. SOFIA can fly above 99 percent of the water vapor in the atmosphere, giving researchers a unique look at space with the use of infrared technology. Vivian Hoette, education and outreach director at Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, recently flew on NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy. SOFIA can fly above 99 percent of the water vapor in the atmosphere, giving researchers a unique look at space with the use of infrared technology. NASA

WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY -- How do you explain the vastness of the universe or astronomical features like interstellar dust to someone who can’t see the sky?

If you’re Vivian Hoette, the education and outreach director of Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, you get a seat on board NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy -- or SOFIA as it’s commonly called -- get some out-of-this-world pictures from space, then return to Earth and create tactile images that allow the blind to see space with their hands.

“It’s a way to bring it back to someone who cannot see ... and thrilled is a good word to describe it. I’m definitely thrilled because I’ve been doing outreach for SOFIA for 14 or 15 years,” said Hoette by phone on May 7, from NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Palmdale, Calif., moments before her pre-flight briefing.

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All told, Hoette, who’s been with Yerkes for about 11 years, logged 20 hours on two separate SOFIA flights during the second week of May. When it comes to observing space, SOFIA is offering never-before-seen views, and Hoette being granted passenger status puts her in an elite category.

“She’s going as an escort and, well, yeah, it’s a very, very coveted thing for the people that get to go,” said Nicholas Veronico, SOFIA’s public affairs officer.

To clarify, SOFIA is not a rocket or a space shuttle. It’s a modified Boeing 747 that can fly up to 45,000 feet, higher than the cruising altitude of commercial aircraft, and above 99 percent of the water vapor in our atmosphere. At that height, and with that pesky water vapor not obscuring the view, SOFIA provides observations that can’t be obtained from telescopes on the ground.

Unlike space-based telescopes, SOFIA’s instrumentation quickly can be changed to suit specific missions. After final testing, the high-resolution airborne wideband camera (HAWC) developed at Yerkes will be one of many cutting-edge instruments on board SOFIA.

Veronico explained that SOFIA really does boldly go where we haven’t gone before, and the secret is in the infrared.

“We’re spending a lot of time looking at the Orion Nebula because it’s a star-forming region, and the stars that are forming are forming behind clouds of dust and gas, interstellar dust and gas. And what SOFIA’s sweet spot is, is in the infrared,” he said. “We can see through that dust and gas. When you look at Orion at night, you see the constellation, you see the sword. We’re looking through that.”

SOFIA’s origins trace to 1965, with the first use of a NASA aircraft outfitted with infrared astronomy, and SOFIA’s first light -- NASA-speak for first flight with in-flight night observations --  came on May 26, 2010, through an onboard reflecting telescope with an effective diameter of 2.5 meters. (or 100 inches.) Today, SOFIA operates in an 80/20 partnership with NASA and the German Aerospace Center.

Hoette wasn’t the one aiming the Faint Object Infrared Camera for the SOFIA Telescope (FORECAST) into the cosmos. That job belonged to Ryan Lau, an astronomy graduate student at Cornell University. Hoette will be close by, though.

“I’m observing the operation of the telescope,” said Hoette of her role. “There’s an educator console where you can sit that has computer monitors that monitor the telescope, and they show you a wide field, a narrow field and then an actual field of view of the focal plane of the telescope.”

Back on the ground, Hoette and Lau will use the images he captured in flight to create tactile graphics. They’ll also collaborate with Katherine Watson, a blind journalism intern at Yerkes, to ensure the plates -- and their Braille texts -- give blind and visually impaired users a true sense of the properties of stars and the matter surrounding them.

Born three months premature, Watson was blinded by neonatal intensive care lights. Until 2009, she was able to see light in her left eye. Today, she’s totally blind. Lack of optical vision, however, hasn’t kept her from reaching for the stars and she has these words for those who doubt that the blind can see:

“Even in my own life, I’ve had people that didn’t know how I could study astronomy as a blind person,” Watson said. “Turning it from something I read about and heard about to something I was looking at was absolutely incredible. And with the advent of 3-D printing and light detectors, it’s going to get even better. I can’t wait.”

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