Wednesday | December 13, 2017
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Pahoa teacher to fly aboard NASA observatory


Tribune-Herald staff writer

A Hawaii Island educator is set to hitch a ride aboard the world’s largest flying telescope.

Randi Brennon, a teacher at Hawaii Academy of Arts and Sciences in Pahoa, will participate in a weeklong program that will allow her to observe research aboard NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), which is essentially a modified Boeing 747 jet carrying a 17-ton, 2.7-meter telescope.

“I’ll be working right there with the scientists, seeing what they see in real time,” Brennon said Tuesday afternoon. “This really opens the doors for kids to consider a career in one of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. It’s showing them there’s different paths to being a scientist than just math.”

Brennon teaches as part of HAAS’ Hui Malama na Mea a Kane, a project-based learning program for seventh- and eigth-graders.

Known as the Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors Program, the opportunity for educators to ride along on the research flights is about providing teachers with a look at how research is done in a real-world setting, and then giving them the tools to bring that information and experience home to their students, said Dr. Dana Backman, director of SOFIA’s education and public outreach efforts.

“It’s showing them how research happens,” he said. “Our teachers are not proposing science. They’re junior partners with the astronomers, and we ask them to come up with a plan for bringing the experience back to their local communities.”

Flying at 540 mph at about 44,000 feet, SOFIA operates on much the same principle as the telescopes atop Mauna Kea: By bringing the telescope higher into the atmosphere, the device is able to capture clearer images of celestial bodies without interference from cloud cover, pollution, and more.

Due to its altitude, SOFIA is able to capture about 80 percent of the infrared radiation that the Hubble Space Telescope captures, at a much lower cost, Backman said.

“It’s the best of both worlds, and it’s quite a bit less expensive (than a space telescope),” he said. “It (the telescope) is actually almost exactly the same size as Hubble. Actually, slightly bigger. And it has much better acuity than Mauna Kea. It’s like a low-flying space telescope that comes home every morning, so you can make repairs, make changes. We have seven different instruments we can outfit it with, so we’ve got seven different ways we can slice and dice what we bring home.”

The goal is to analyze infrared light from the outer reaches of space to study the early formation of stars and planets, Backman said. Meanwhile, a total of 26 educators this year will get a front-row seat to watch as data is collected and analyzed. The process itself isn’t all that exciting on the surface, Backman admitted, but for those familiar with the work being done, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“It’s not especially exciting to look at. It looks like eight or 10 people staring at computer consoles,” he said of the majority of the flights. “The excitement is more spiritual, it’s in people’s heads.”

Prior to the flights, Brennon was required to participate in a graduate-level online astronomy course, so that she will be familiar with the terminology being used by the astronomers. She will also be required to follow up with a plan she submitted with her project partner, Custer City, Penn., teacher James Johnson of the Children’s Center for Treatment and Education. The pair partnered up due to a mutual interest in astrobiology — the study of how life originated in the universe.

“The great thing is that SOFIA is concerned with looking at star nurseries, and that’s essential to looking at how life started,” she said.

Next week, Brennon and Johnson will travel to NASA’s Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, Calif., to undergo pre-flight training before flying aboard SOFIA on the evenings of Sept. 16 and 18. Each flight will last 10 hours, departing at 7 p.m. and returning at 5 a.m.

While she won’t have the ability to post live video, Brennon said she’ll be providing regular web updates of her experience for her students and others to see. Those interested may keep up with the program at the Facebook page for the SOFIA Airborne Astronomers Ambassadors Program page.

As she has prepared for her journey, Brennon said her students have peppered her with plenty of questions. Perhaps the most popular question, she said, centers around the fact that the giant telescope on SOFIA must be pointed out of a big hole in the side of the 747.

“They want to know why the plane doesn’t fall down when there’s a big hole in the side of the plane. I explained that a great many scientists and engineers had to test this theory out before they built the plane, and they actually discovered it works. I’m just glad it works,” she said with a laugh.

For more information on the program, visit

Colin M. Stewart at


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