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Tribbles Invade NASA's Flying Telescope During Nichelle Nichols's Observing Run

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When NASA’s airborne telescope was invaded by Tribbles, Nichelle Nichols was on-hand to keep them in check so the team could focus on with their observing run.

NASA brought Star Trek’s Nichelle Nichols and a pack of educators as Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors on their Spetember 16, 2015 observing run on the SOFIA airborne telescope. The Ambassadors spent a night with the flying observatory in return for sharing their experiences with us. Also along for the ride? A small herd of Tribbles, the adorable fluffy aliens from Star Trek that bred so quickly they nearly engulfed a space station.


NASA’s SOFIA telescope is mounted aboard a modified 747 airplane. The flying observatory operates above 99% of water vapour in the atmosphere, providing an excellent view of the stars above. The telescope is in a sealed bulkhead that allows it to be fully exposed to the elements while keeping observers tucked snuggly within the pressurized portion of the plane.


This unusual operating setup means the aircraft was modified so that the gaping hole doesn’t screw up the aerodynamics of flight. The flying observatory can hold the 2.5 meter SOFIA telescope, scientific instruments, and a crew of 26 people.

The Sofia telescope is mounted on gyroscopes to keep it stably focused on its target even as the airplane moves around it.


Route map for the September 15, 2015 observing run. Image credit: NASA

Every time the plane changed course during the 10-hour overnight observing session, it was to change observation targets. They checked out Beta Umi (the brightest star in the bowl of the Little Dipper and a perfect target for instrument calibration) and a series of star forming regions including W31, W49A, and W51. They also managed to unexpectedly sneak a peek at aurora, the colourful phenomena produced with charged particles from the sun crash into the Earth’s magnetic field.


This isn’t Nichols first stint at participating in outreach for NASA. The actress was instrumental in recruiting women to the astronaut corps, and hitched a lift with NASA’s previous flying observatory, the Kuiper Airborne Observatory.


Nichols posing with SOFIA before boarding. Image credit: NASA

You can watch the mission briefing here:

The although the airborne telescope was cut from NASA’s budget last year, the space agency renewed its funding request for next year and is currently accepting proposals for new research runs.


Correction: An earlier version of this article listed that SOFIA was on the chopping block, but not that it had received a funding reprieve. Looks like it’s going to be flying at least a little longer!

Top image: Nichelle Nichols with a small herd of tribbles. Credit: NASA