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It seems that Silicon Valley in California, that hotbed of blazing computer development, is now giving birth to technology for the search for origin of biological life in the stars.

In a unique international joint effort, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, a team of contractors and the German Aerospace Center (DLR) are working together to create the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy — a 250-cm reflecting telescope mounted in what used to be a commercial Boeing 747SP airplane.

SOFIA will be developed and operated for NASA by the team of contractors led by the Universities Space Research Association.

“SOFIA will be able to make observations and gather data that is just about impossible for even the largest and highest of ground-based telescopes,” says Mike Bennett of USRA. “By flying above the infrared-absorbing water vapor in the atmosphere, SOFIA can avoid more than 99 percent of the interference that hampers Earthbound ‘scopes.

“This infrared band is very important in collecting data,” Bennett notes. “At this wavelength, the rays emitted from stars and galaxies are not visible to the naked eye, so SOFIA does the looking for us. SOFIA will be soaring at operating altitudes of 41,000 to 45,000 feet [12,500-13,700 meters], giving the telescope a clear look at the birth of star and planet formations, black holes and how comets form and galaxies evolve and change. We can even search for the basis of life on a molecular level or do research about the formation of solar systems.

“An additional advantage is that she is mobile! We can take her anywhere in the world to get the right observations.”

SOFIA is not the first airborne observatory to fly. NASA began operating the Kuiper Airborne Observatory in 1974. Originally a converted C-141 Lockheed military cargo transport that was modified to carry a 91.5-cm reflecting infrared telescope, KAO flew scientific missions for 22 years. The team made such discoveries such as the first sightings of the rings of Uranus, the identification of an atmosphere on Pluto and the discovery of water vapors in the atmospheres of Jupiter and Saturn.

SOFIA will be conducting similar research, but with the improved technological firepower of that 250-cm telescope. She can collect data 60 times faster than her predecessor, and will have a clearer view of the infrared than any current telescope.

Compared to the orbiting Hubble telescope, SOFIA has some distinct advantages. A greater variety of instruments can be mounted on SOFIA, and since she lands daily, they can be changed for the specific research needed. Hubble can be visited only every two to three years, at great expense.

Originally a 20-year-old Pan Am commercial airplane, SOFIA is a superb example of recycling. The Raytheon Systems Company in Waco, Texas, is gutting the interior and installing the German-designed and -built telescope. They will make extensive modifications to the aircraft’s structure and control systems as well as engineering the open cavity where the telescope will be housed.

United Airlines will service SOFIA at their extensive facilities at San Francisco and Oakland airports and will build and staff a maintenance service center within NASA’s Ames Research Center for day-to-day servicing. United will also operate the observatory and provide the specially trained pilots. Over 80 scientists, engineers and technicians will be needed to operate and maintain the aircraft, telescope and additional instrumentation. The plane has an expected working life of 20 years.

By the year 2003, SOFIA is expected to be flying out of Ames Research Center near Mountain View, Calif., four nights a week, with about 120-160 research flights per year. Astronomers, technicians, engineers and educators can work together in a comfortable airliner atmosphere during a typical eight- to nine-hour flight.

Two months out of the year, the observatory will be based in New Zealand where visibility of our Galaxy, the Milky Way, is at its best.

In addition to the usual contingent of scientists, USRA’s Education and Public Outreach Program will allow journalists and teachers to fly as visitors. An anticipated 500 educators will conduct a variety of scientific research on the SOFIA missions, taking their knowledge back to the classrooms. This outreach program will be administered by two private nonprofit organizations, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and the SETI Institute.

American taxpayers are sharing the bill for SOFIA with Germany’s, but total costs should be less than the cost of one Stealth bomber.

“Considering that $1.5 billion are spent per year on cosmetics alone in America,” says Bennett, “SOFIA should be considered a bargain.”

And money well spent in our search for information about what goes on outside of planet Earth.