The first science flight of a high-speed ex-reconnaissance aircraft took place March 9 from California's Edwards Air Force Base, carrying a payload operated by scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The second scientific test flight of the SR-71 Blackbird, carrying an ultraviolet camera which studies stars and comets, will take place on Friday, March 12.
"This is really a case of turning swords into plough shares," said Dr. Jacklyn R. Green, the JPL SR-71 project scientist. "We are taking what was once a spy plane and transforming it into a useful, cost-effective science platform."
During the one and a half hour flight, the SR-71 climbed to an altitude of 85,000 feet with an upward-looking ultraviolet camera system mounted in its nose bay. "We are doing astronomy at mach 3 (2,100 mph) and no one else has ever done that before," Green said.
The faster the plane goes the higher it soars and it is the high altitude that makes the Blackbird such an important scientific asset. Flying above a significant portion of the Earth's atmosphere, scientists can observe stars and planets at ultraviolet wavelengths that are blocked to ground-based astronomers. Using the high altitude SR-71 as a scientific platform enables scientists to do ultraviolet astronomy more cost-effectively and it opens the door to a wide range of other scientific applications, such as the study of comets, asteroids and astrophysics.
The maiden flight of the SR-71 as a scientific platform had two key objectives: to determine how the camera responds under different lighting conditions such as daylight, twilight and nighttime and to test the camera's resolution in relation to the effects of vibration and turbulence.
"We want to determine how faint an object we can observe," Green said. "The results of the first flight look good. We were able to see Mars and the constellation Orion, among other stars. The ride appeared to be totally smooth and we couldn't detect any vibration in the images."
Subsequent flights will add other instruments such as ultraviolet spectrometers and infrared and ultraviolet sensors.
Green is working with universities, industry and other government agencies to ensure the SR-71 is accessible to multiple scientific disciplines. "This is a cooperative effort. We want to evaluate and develop this plane to make it a national resource. We want to be a flying observatory," Green added.
The ultraviolet camera system was provided by the Southwest Research Institute of San Antonio, Texas.
The aircraft is operated by NASA's Dryden Flight Research Facility.
The SR-71 scientific testbed research is funded by the Aeronautics Technology Division at NASA Headquarters.
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