Is it possible to mount a telescope on a plane? Is it beneficial?

  • I was wondering if any planes had mounted telescopes with the intent to observe the stars. I understand that the atmosphere itself can warp and hinder incoming light and even completely obscure views on cloudy days. Would it be possible to have a telescope which could account for the speed of the airplane and remove motion blur? Would it even be worth it, seeing as the size of the lens would also be limited? Could we see anything interesting that a terrestrial scope of the same size would miss?

    Hobbes has mentioned SOFIA as a great example of this being done. Does anyone have more information on the benefits of a plane mounted telescope over one on the ground for noninfrared observation?

    As far as I remember there is a telescope on a plane. The speed of the plane is small when compared to the rotational speed of Earth at the equator anyway. Compensation of the rotation of Earth is state of the art for large telescopes to allow long exposures.

    @uwe nice point about the speeds.

    @Uwe "The speed of the plane is small when compared to the rotational speed of Earth" - I wouldn't second that. A regular jet plane will routinely travel at about 50% the speed of the earth at the equator.

    Not sure if it counts as a "telescope", but it was used for astronomical observations - during the total eclipse in the UK in 1999, I remember seeing footage from a gyro-stabilised camera with an eclipse-viewing filter that was mounted on a Hercules aircraft to fly above the clouds so that people could see it whatever the weather.

    There were many spy planes in the 60s that had telescopes pointed towards the ground and they took pretty clear pictures. Is this really any different from pointing the telescope to the sky? Maybe less magnification?

    @jphi1618 well if i was asking about those it wouldnt fit on this SE though-- is there an SE for espionage haha?

    @MagicOctopusUrn, there is an SE for aviation in general that might have some questions for you to search through.

    Not really an answer, but you might be interested - there have been several telescopes attached to balloons - Wikipedia - which is less technologically demanding and can get to higher altitudes

    but planes still need to move in atmosphere to be able to fly... :)

    @JonathanTwite and helpfully, they vibrate less

  • Hobbes

    Hobbes Correct answer

    4 years ago

    This has been done.

    1. SOFIA is an infrared observatory built into a Boeing 747 SP:

    enter image description here

    SOFIA takes advantage of the fact that some infrared bands are visible at atltitude, these are attenuated by water in the atmosphere so they're less visible on the ground.

    There have been infrared observatories before SOFIA:

    The first use of an aircraft for performing infrared observations was in 1965 when Gerard P. Kuiper used the NASA Convair 990 to study Venus. Three years later, Frank Low used the Ames Learjet for observations of Jupiter and nebulae.[20] In 1969, planning began for mounting a 910 mm (36 in) telescope on an airborne platform. The goal was to perform astronomy from the stratosphere, where there was a much lower optical depth from water-vapor-absorbed infrared radiation. This project, named the Kuiper Airborne Observatory, was dedicated on May 21, 1975. The telescope was instrumental in numerous scientific studies, including the discovery of the ring system around the planet Uranus.[21]

    The proposal for a larger aircraft-mounted telescope was officially presented in 1984 and called for a Boeing 747 to carry a three-meter telescope. The preliminary system concept was published in 1987 in a Red Book. It was agreed that Germany would contribute 20% of the total cost and provide the telescope.

    Other airborne astronomy is more incidental. Around solar eclipses, you'll often see some astronomy flights. Some of these are tourism, others perform science. These are usually passenger aircraft temporarily modified (scopes installed that look through the existing windows). These take advantage of the fact you can lengthen the eclipse by flying along its path, and you can reach eclipses in places otherwise inaccessible.

    Cool! I had no idea about SOFIA, now I get to read about neat astronomy airplanes while I wait to board my next flight. Thanks Hobbes.

    There was a predecessor called the Kuiper Airborne Observatory ( which used a smaller telescope in a C141 StarLifter. It was one of the first instruments to show that Pluto had a thin atmosphere through observing a stellar occultation.

    Indeed, the two 747s that used to ferry the space shuttle orbiter are now being used as spare parts for SOFIA.

    "Other airborne astronomy is more incidental" ... not if you count balloons : . They tend to be used for investigations that need a longer duration (and thus can't be done via sounding rocket). In some cases, they're testing designs for instruments that might get flown on a spacecraft.

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