sofia_nz_2015flitecamLogo IR Lab

In June, 2015, FLITECAM took a
trip to the southern Hemisphere.

It was part of the New Zealand deployment of SOFIA, and used with two other instruments to image the Pluto Occultation on
June 30, 2015.

Through hard work and determination of so many, the mission was a resounding success.

These web pages document the mission photographically. But they are far from all-inclusive.

Except where noted,
All content & images
Copyright © 2015
Chris Johnson
UCLA Infrared Lab

Day Eight - Occultation

After sleeping for several hours, we head back to the aircraft to get FLITECAM prepared for the occultation flight.

SOFIA is powered up and ready to go. But unbeknowst to us, it had suffered a minor injury earlier in the day. The wind had knocked a piece of equipment into the plane! After some hard work by the crew, and with some help from Air New Zealand, it was repaired safely, in time for flight.

The mission briefing felt only a little bit tense. Nancy discusses the flight plan with our pilot, Ace.

The Pluto occultation will occur near the end of the 10-hour flight, and our helium boils off around 8-9% per hour. So back on the aircraft, Kevin and Zaheer perform a last minute cryofill to ensure there's enough helium for FLITECAM to make it through to the end.

This was my 10th flight on SOFIA, and I had never before seen such a high level of activity. Normally there are around 25 people on a typical flight, tonight there were 37.

Staying loose. Ryan, Maureen, and Jeff have their game faces on!

Karina and Nancy, co-mission directors, discuss the objectives. Their job communicating with all of the teams, including the pilots, is mission critical. I'm not sure where they hide the extra ears they seem to have to keep track of the different conversations.

The door is closed, safety briefing is done, and we taxi off into the night. Maureen pipes in Johnny Cash's "Walk the Line" over the Mission Audio Distribution System (MADS) as we take off.

It had previously been decided that the occultation was the primary objective, and other planned general science would be cut. Therefore, there was quite a bit of dead time in flight. But everyone was anticipating a possible course change from Amanda at MIT, so they gather around the Skynet Internet laptop.

Shortly after midnight, the final correction is in, and it's 227 km north of the flight plan. Jeff and Karina plan intercept options.

Pluto is very dim, but the star being occulted is about 5 times brighter. Ryan points out the occultation target on his laptop.

We had taken images with three different filters, K, H, and Hwide, and needed to choose which to use for the most important 90 seconds of FLITECAM's life. This required some very fast data reduction by Ryan, under stressful conditions. Ted, (Mike), Ryan, and Sarah discussing the winning filter decision..... Hwide!

After hours of preparing and waiting, the star begins to disappear from FLITECAM's view! Our instrument is taking frames every 1.5 seconds -- slower than originally desired, but fast enough to maximize the quality of the data. Everyone is really excited!

The German crew were running the The Focal Plane Imager (FPI). This was as happy as I'd seen them get! The FPI even showed the central flash in real-time [YouTube].

Karen, our telescope operator (TO), is happy, and it's her last flight on SOFIA!

Ted is ecstatic! All four cameras -- HIPO Red, HIPO Blue, FPI, and FLITECAM -- worked flawlessly.

Tom shows guest journalists Nadia Drake (obscured) and Govert Schilling his preliminary results. I am unable to show this image until cleared to do so!

Combined with the flyby of Pluto by New Horizons, the information gathered in flight will help greatly increase the knowledge about Pluto's atmosphere. No ground based telescope has the mobility to chase the shadow, and get right in the middle, as we did tonight on SOFIA. Eric Becklin said it was the smoothest occultation he's witnessed.

UPDATE: Here's a nice video of the Occultation Flight [] created by Mike Agnew.