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Originally published Monday, April 28, 2014 at 6:59 PM

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Southern Oregon astronomers taking NASA telescope flight

Two amateur astronomers, an Oregon high-school teacher and a friend, will spend 20 hours this week 45,000 feet above Earth aboard NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, the world’s largest flying telescope.

Medford Mail Tribune


MEDFORD, Ore. — A projected map cuts through the semidarkness of North Medford High School’s planetarium and shimmers into focus on the dome’s curved ceiling.

It’s a flight path, showing planned liftoffs from Palmdale, Calif., on Wednesday and Thursday and a soaring route over Oregon, Washington, parts of Canada, Iowa and Idaho before a return to base; two 10-hour jaunts with no planned landings.

“Sunset to sunrise, we’ll fly all night,” says Robert Black, North Medford’s astronomy teacher and planetarium director.

What he’s describing is no typical airplane flight. Black, 50, along with friend and fellow amateur astronomer Dave Bloomsness, 61, of Southern Oregon Skywatchers, will fly aboard SOFIA — NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy — the world’s largest flying telescope. They are among 24 educators selected from across the country for SOFIA’s Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors program.

Working alongside astronomers and other scientists, they will help collect infrared images and data pertaining to the study of interstellar gases, star formation and destruction, and black holes — all at 45,000 feet in the Earth’s stratosphere, about twice the altitude of a domestic airliner flight. When they return, they will implement classroom lessons and public-outreach events based on their experiences.

“It’s a huge opportunity. I’m really excited,” Bloomsness says.

Educators have been taking similar flights since the Ambassadors program began in 2010.

Black says his mentor, Gary Sprague, took a flight in the 1980s aboard the Kuiper Airborne Observatory, a modified C141A military-cargo plane that ran research and observation flights from 1975 until its retirement in the 1990s. SOFIA took over in 2010.

“That’s one of the high points of his career,” Black says of Sprague’s flight. “He volunteered to fly; somebody got sick. It was an accident for him, serendipity.”

The opportunity for Black and Bloomsness didn’t come by lucky accident. It took a meticulous application process, combined with weeks of advanced astronomy study.

Black first heard about plans for the Ambassadors program in 1999 while attending a workshop at the NASA Ames Research Center near Palo Alto, Calif.

“They said, ‘Our plan is to allow astronomy teachers and amateur astronomers to fly, in a competitive process,’ ” Black says. “You have to apply and get letters of recommendation.”

For years he kept tabs on the program and stayed up to date on construction of SOFIA’s 2.5-meter-diameter telescope. In 2010, it was ready. When he heard the program sought pairs of applicants, Black thought first of Bloomsness.

“There’s nobody else,” Black says. “We already worked together. His knowledge of telescopes is vast.”

“We make a good team,” Bloomsness agrees. “We have complementary knowledge, so we work really well together.”

They began the application process in June 2013 and took an advanced, 26-chapter astronomy course through Montana State University. One question posed in the course required students to use advanced mathematics to figure out how much hydrogen fuel the sun has used over 4.5 billion years.

“I thought, ‘Oh, it shouldn’t be too tough,’ ” says Bloomsness. “We put a lot of hours in.”

Finalists were to be called in June, but because of the government sequester, they had to wait an extra six months.

“Almost, in my mind, I’d given up on it,” Black says. “I wanted to be either told yes or no.”

They got the call the day after Black’s 50th birthday, on Nov. 17.

“I howled out the window ... I was happy,” Black says.

“It was great,” Bloomsness chimes in.

SOFIA’s route disappears from the planetarium ceiling, replaced by a series of pictures. Black scrolls through images of galaxies and distant stars forming and dying — images of the flight’s “targets,” or points of study along the way.

The mission will utilize infrared technology, the increased clarity of the stratosphere and its lack of water vapor to better study the targets and gather data. Bloomsness says SOFIA is the perfect instrument between ground observatories and satellites orbiting in space.

“We can see through gas and dust,” Black says. “You also see the nebulas that form the stars, and you see the death of stars.”

“This is actual — real astronomers. This is all cutting-edge; some of this is new stuff,” Bloomsness says.

Black, a former geologist, remembers when his interest shifted skyward. It was in 1989, during a field trip he was supervising for eighth-graders to the McDonald Observatory in Texas. During an astronomer’s talk to the students, the sky went blood red. It was the farthest south the aurora borealis had reached, caused by a massive burst of solar energy being released into space.

“It just showed me there’s nothing more interesting to people,” Black says.

Now, some 25 years later, he and Bloomsness have a chance to see something unique again.

“I’m kind of looking at the whole experience, about maybe seeing an iconic picture for the first time, something we didn’t know about,” Black says. “I can say, ‘You know what? I was there that night. I was riding with SOFIA.’ ”

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