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Yerkes educator takes NASA flight

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Lisa Schmelz | May 20, 2014

WILLIAMS BAY -- 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.

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