I'm an astro grad student flying on SOFIA to run some tests with our mid-IR camera. Our tests aren't very exciting, but we've got some beautiful results from previous flights (http://www.nasa.gov/images/content/717927main_1a_SOFIA-FORCAST_CNR_black_hole.jpg)

Here's SOFIA sitting in the hangar as of an hour ago (http://imgur.com/7Qg5AWa)

Ask me anything!

edit: I should probably mention that the image is of the inner 20 light years of our galaxy. It's a ring of hot dust around the 4 million solar mass super massive black hole. The "Y"-shaped features are streamers of hot dust and gas falling in to the black hole.

edit: hey guys, thanks for all the questions but I need to get some sleep! If people are still interested I can do another one tomorrow (with more pictures).

edit3: I'm about to head out, I can do another one of these when I get back around ~730am PDT. See you guys then!

edit4: change of plans. we had to land earlier so we're trying again tomorrow

edit5: (http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/1bkv7f/i_am_an_astronomer_flying_on_nasas_stratospheric/) if you have more questions! sorry, I'll do this tomorrow!

Comments: 444 • Responses: 115  • Date: 

shemat79 karma

what does infrared astronomy help to observe better than other methods?

Ultraballer2000114 karma

Looking in the infrared is awesome when your sources are enshrouded by dust, which prevents you from observing in the visible of ultraviolet wavelengths.

There are large quantities of dust inbetween us and the galactic center (we're on the outer parts of the Galaxy so think of the spiral arms). So it's impossible to observe the center in visible wavelengths; however, in the IR we're able to see through all of that dust and find out what's going on (see the picture!)

Kode4729 karma

Does the same principle also work with radio telescopes?

Ultraballer200046 karma

Yup! And with radio telescopes you can observe in the day.

farmercrossing24 karma

how much do you get paid to do this, and if I want to be you; how much time and money do I have to put in? Also, are these all from tax dollars?

Ultraballer200059 karma

I get paid pretty comfortably. But keep in mind that this is coming right out of undergrad so not technically having a real job. I know my friends who pursued careers in business are making much more than I am.

The time and money is all pretty much put into going to undergrad and doing good there. Unfortunately, most people don't have that opportunity which always leads me to wonder about all the brilliant minds that are out there that go on never fulfilling their potential (sorry that was a bit off topic)

NotAllThatWitty54 karma

Not a question but I literally just finished watching a TV show about that airplane. It seems really cool. I hope you have a ball

Ultraballer200062 karma

It is really cool--the best thing is that they have little flight cards like they do on regular planes with emergency procedures and whatnot.

Kode4721 karma

Do they charge you extra for the telescope?

Ultraballer200049 karma

we actually get reserved observing time on it! but we can't touch it or we get in trouble

Viper007Bond12 karma

FYI I believe that's an FAA requirement.

Ultraballer200062 karma

I know, but it's so cute

sorryiforgotabouthis48 karma

How does it work?

Ultraballer200063 karma

SOFIA is really an amazing feat of engineering. It is literally a 2.5 meter telescope mounted in the fuselage of a Boeing 747. The project was in the works for over 10 years since they had to strip down the airplane and retrofit it with new electronics to operate the telescope and run the instruments made for it.

Donoghue31 karma

I worked with a guy that helped to engineer the telescope mount in the back of the aircraft. Nothing like digging an old 747 fuselage out of storage and adding extra structure to support massive amount of sensitive equipment. Or so I'm told.

What exactly is your assignment on board?

Ultraballer200038 karma

Hah, it would've been cool if they just made an entirely customized plane from scratch.

My role on board is mainly just to look at the data form our camera in real time to make sure things are looking ok, and also to do some quick image analysis.

Kode4715 karma

How quickly is that, as in how fast paced is your work? Do you get a new image every few minutes or is it somewhat slower?

Ultraballer200031 karma

It can be really fast-paced, especially since we're essentially at the will of the pilots and the flight path. This means we can be looking at a huge series of images over several minutes, but we also have some downtime when the plane is changing directions so we can look over our data.

Kode4716 karma

That's cool, I would've thought I'd be slower than that though. Thanks for answering. Another question, how long is your typical flight?

Ultraballer200028 karma

about 10 hours. It's pretty much a red-eye flight except you're landing in the same place you took off

Kode4747 karma


Is that a doppler shift joke?

Ultraballer200026 karma

haha it could be

KingsCounty38 karma

What altitude do you fly at and why can't you preform the same operations from earth? Also can you tell us what were looking at in the first picture?

Ultraballer200057 karma

Ah, sorry for not being more descriptive about the picture. It's the inner 20 lightyears of our galaxy! That ring that you see is a ring of hot dust circling around the supermassive black hole 4 million times the mass of the Sun in the galactic center. Those bright Y-like streamers are streamers of dust and gas falling into the supermassive black hole.

We fly at altitudes greater than 40000 ft to get above the clouds. This is key! We can't perform these same operations on land because the clouds prevent us from observing in the infrared.

Also, since it's not a space-based observatory we can make changes/upgrades to the plane very easily since it comes back home everyday.

lovelemurs23 karma

Wouldn't the movement of the aircraft screw with the pictures? How is this compensated for?

Ultraballer200034 karma

the German-made telescope assembly is really well done, and effectively isolates the telescope from movements of the aircraft

lowerthegates15 karma

Where can we find more pictures? It looks like a giant pissed off flame ouroboros, and I need to put that fear to rest.

Ultraballer200029 karma

Haha, here's another image of it in the radio (http://ircamera.as.arizona.edu/NatSci102/NatSci102/images/sgra_lg.jpg)

Notice that we see the full ring in the IR, as opposed to that radio image!

BTerror17 karma

Wow that is amazing, thanks for sharing! Is there a website with these photos?

Ultraballer20009 karma


There will hopefully be more in the coming year!

KserDnB8 karma

wait, it's a picture of sagittarius A?

Ultraballer200016 karma

We can't actually "see" the black hole at our wavelengths. We can see the structures that have formed from its gravitational influence. The region is referred to as Sagittarius A West.

RedditTooAddictive23 karma

How do you feel, knowing that you're sometimes Higher than Snoop Lion ?

Ultraballer200073 karma

Like a G

unautre21 karma

Will you come back and do an AMA when it's done?

Ultraballer200028 karma

Sure! It might not be very exciting though

Capt_Clarence_Oveur16 karma

Can you take some pictures of the cockpit? I love the old 747 classics, especially the SP. I'm jealous you get to fly on one! And of course do amazing scientific work.

Ultraballer200015 karma

Sure, I can do that. They completely redid the avionics so it might to look a little different. There's actually a picture of it floating around some where...

sithoda19 karma

How difficult is Astronomy to get into, such as work load, study time and other courses you decided to do?

Ultraballer200034 karma

You typically major in physics in undergrad, which can be a lot of work. I'm actually done with taking classes but in my first year of grad school I was taking courses as well as TAing which took up a large amount of my time.

It's a lot of hard work but I find it to be incredibly rewarding both teaching and shedding light on the crazy unknowns of space

DrellVanguard10 karma

I did astrophysics as my undergrad course, in the UK.

Entry requirements were ABB at A level, and you had to do physics and maths at a level (16-18).

Interview was easy.

I graduated in 2009, decided to do medicine, most of my friends are doing PhDs in Astrophysics, 3 years and they are now nearly finished. There were 4 spots at my university for grad students, my 4 friends got them quite easily.

sithoda8 karma

I'm thinking about doing physics/studying astrophyics/cosmology, so getting perspectives like this helps a lot.

Ultraballer200013 karma

The best advice I can give you is to ask lots of questions. Especially to graduate students since they have most recently gone through the process and are thinking about their future career

DrellVanguard2 karma

Oh also the grad school bit is only 3 years in the UK, and you get paid a stipend of about £13k a year to do it, with fees paid as well.

Just noticed the other parts of your question -

we had 25 hours of lectures a week, which was second only to the medics at the university (go me for choosing that afterwards), and we were expected to do 2 hours private study for every hour of lecture, but that didn't seem necessary to get good grades.

We had labs twice a week, 3 hours in a lab. The astro guys did physics lab on Tuesday (playing with lasers, magnets etc, then astro labs on Thursday - playing with diffraction gratings and data analysis stuff.

If you want to do cosmology then good luck - I found it less intuitive than quantum physics.

Ultraballer20002 karma

Cosmology is crazy. It blows my mind thinking on how we have theories that trace the universe to its infancy.. to tiny tiny fractions of seconds after the Big Bang.

ednorog19 karma

Not a question, really, greetings from Sofia, Bulgaria, and have a nice flight! ;)

Ultraballer200012 karma


DrellVanguard17 karma

I did a 4 year undergrad course in astrophysics, and one thing I took away was the one question you can use to annoy any astronomer:

what about the magnetic fields?

Ultraballer200024 karma


Ultraballer200030 karma

That was supposed to be an angry face but I was too annoyed to fix it

Dinosaurgasm15 karma

Do you guys come up with the acronym first?

Ultraballer200023 karma

I actually have no idea.. I always thought it happens at the same time, like when you're writing a song and you have both the lyrics and the melody in your head if that makes any sense.

Kode475 karma

If you could have picked the acronym, what would it be?

Ultraballer200025 karma

Ok how about ICARUS. Infrared... something.. Stratosphere..

Ultraballer200011 karma

I actually like SOFIA, but I'll think about it...

derleth5 karma

Well, if you take out the Infrared part, you'd be doing visible-light astronomy, which is often done from the ground, so you'd end up just sitting on a SOFA. Not nearly as cool. Therefore, leave things as they are and enjoy sitting in a plane for ten hours.

Oh, wait...

Anyway, the better acronym is GREAT (German Receiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies), which discovered two new molecules not so long ago. One of them was OD, the deuterated hydroxyl radical, so my question is: How do they tell it's OD and not OH just by looking at spectra?

Ultraballer20004 karma

Ah, I haven't seen that yet. I believe OD will have different emission lines than OH.

gnipeekitlaer10 karma

How much pussy have you gotten since the axe deodorant commercials came out?

Ultraballer200026 karma

I'm pretty sure there's an anti-correlation between axe deodorant and getting laid*

*assuming you're not in high school

gnipeekitlaer4 karma

So wait you haven't taken the suit out to the beach yet?

Ultraballer20006 karma

nope, nor out to a burning building.

gnipeekitlaer20 karma

I'm not an astronaut but I pay taxes and if you're not getting laid then it's time to start this country over.

Ultraballer200012 karma

thank you for your concern, gnipeekitlaer

Capt_Clarence_Oveur7 karma

More info...

The airplane:


The last flight (probably can track it since it will file a flight plan again):


Ultraballer20005 karma

this is cool!

talues6 karma

Pfft, nobody every let me fly to the Herschel Space Observatory. As a fellow infrared/submillimeter astronomer, I have been intrigued by SOFIA and it's capabilities.

How could I use it to study, say, molecular gas and star formation in (nearby) extragalactic sources? You can get as technical and scientific as necessary. Sources are also cool (and welcome!).

Ultraballer20003 karma

I don't know the exact details about the other instruments for SOFIA. But FORCAST on SOFIA is pretty much tuned to study the warm dust (~80 K) emission from debris disks, star formation regions, star forming galaxies, etc. It's a nice complement to Herschel since it covers wavelengths shortwards of it. I'm not quite satisfied with my response to you but if you like you can message me later and we can discuss!

ilikeoctopussy6 karma

This is so awesome!

If any, what kind of training did you have to do for this job?

Also, coke or Pepsi?

Ultraballer200015 karma

4 years of undergrad as a physics major and several years of grad school. I actually joined the project right as our instrument was finished and being installed on the plane. So it's been a crazy experience getting involved with flying aboard the plane and doing some amazing science.

I don't really drink soda.. but coke.

Two-in-the-PinkFloyd5 karma

First of all, that's awesome! Good for you for getting that position as a 25 year old in such a competitive field.

Since you seem to have succeeded at it so far, do you have any tips for an undergrad aspiring to work with NASA? For example, anything that is a must for a resume/experience, anything that helped you get where you are, or anything that helped you succeed in the astronomical research field in general (and not just NASA specifically).

Ultraballer20007 karma

It depends on what kind of undergrad institution you're at. But you really want to get yourself a fair amount of research experience. If you're at a big research institution you should just go up to random faculty and ask them if they have any projects that you could work on.

I went to a small liberal arts college so there wasn't much hardcore research going on at my institution. I did a summer REU, which was such an awesome experience that really let me immerse myself in doing research and looking at science beyond of just doing problem sets. I highly recommend applying to summer internships.

Also, you want to have a good relationship with your advisor/professors--talk with them and ask them questions because having someone to back you up on how competent of a scientist you are is invaluable when you're applying to grad schools.

Those are the major things I can think of right now.. oh, and make sure you study for the physics GRE!

observationalhumour5 karma

Do you or have you played Kerbal Space Program? I'm so addicted to it! That first time I got into a circular orbit was magical!

Ultraballer20003 karma

I've never seen that before, but the trailer looks awesome..

A_Gambino5 karma


Ultraballer20005 karma

There's gotta be life out there somewhere

SquareShells4 karma

What can be learned from the pictures you will take up there?

Ultraballer20009 karma

That picture that I put up there is the sharpest image of the galactic center at those wavelengths. You see the clumpiness of the ring? It's not quite like Saturn's rings which appear more smooth. That's because something interesting is going on around the vicinity of the supermassive black hole and we're trying to figure out what it is.

Blennerhassett4 karma

Why not chuck this thing in space as a long term observatory?

Ultraballer20008 karma

Because we can have it come down everyday to do changes/upgrades to it. It's incredibly expensive to fly up to space to make repairs and changes to space-based observatories.

Ultimately, it comes down to money and fulfilling a method of observing that isn't accomplished by the other observatories out there.

Blennerhassett2 karma

Thx for the reply, could your project be achieved with a budget comparable to Hubble, or is constant adjustment fundamental to the concept?

Ultraballer20008 karma

The running cost of SOFIA is cheaper (but not by much) than any of the space-based observatories like Hubble, Spitzer, Herschel, or especially JWST.

That's why airborne astronomy hits that sweet spot between cost and getting above the atmosphere to achieve ideal observing conditions.

Yosogo3 karma

As a real and legit astronomer, how would you encourage young people that doesn't even understand your job and your contribution to the world, and how would you tell young people what could we achieve if there is more people in this area? Thank you sir. May god bless you.

Ultraballer200024 karma

I actually went back to my old elementary school a year ago to talk to them about what I do and what it means to be an astronomer. They were incredibly bright and it's amazing how aware they are of what is going on in the field--I had several ask me about exoplanets and black holes.

I simply tell them that it's not the astronomers of this generation that are going to solve all the problems of the Universe.. It's their generation that will ultimately drive forward and build upon the progress we've made. Witnessing the look on their faces when I told them that was one of the most rewarding things I've experienced as an astronomer

Quachael3 karma

What is your worst fear, of what could happen?

Ultraballer20006 karma

Worst rational fear would be that the instrument/telescope/airplane electronics fails and we don't get anything useful from the flight, which would push back our schedule and potentially my thesis.

Worst irrational fear would be that I oversleep and miss the flight.

Devilheart3 karma

That Space Dragon in the first picture. How do you plan to destroy it?

Ultraballer20005 karma

my side project.. but the jedi must never know

mnky9800n3 karma

What would your advisor say if he/she knew you were on Reddit?

Ultraballer200013 karma

"your username is Ultraballer2000?"

MToddJohnson3 karma

Let's say i wanna be an astronaut and I can't join the military because of a shoulder injury.

What would I need to be a good candidate?

Ultraballer20005 karma

I'm not quite sure. I've never really looked to in depth at the requirements to becoming an astronaut. I think NASA was looking for astronauts a year ago or something, here's a PDF I found just doing search on that (http://www.nasa.gov/centers/johnson/pdf/606877main_FS-2011-11-057-JSC-astro_trng.pdf)

mfkncrazy3 karma

First off, very awesome! Second, what kind of camera equipment do you use up there? Has anyone used a DSLR like a canon 60da up there? As for the telescopes you are using, what are they? And how do they work? As for the photos, do you/your company stack these photos for a final image? Or are they just single shots?

Ultraballer200011 karma

The camera is a one of a kind thing that costs millions of dollars. It has two 256x256 arrays that can image in the short and long infrared wavelengths simultaneously. They need to be cooled to a temperature of 4 degrees Kelvins (4 degrees above absolute zero!) in order to work properly. Here's some more information if you're interested, the camera is called FORCAST (http://www.sofia.usra.edu/Science/instruments/instruments_forcast.html)

The telescope is a German-made 2.5 meter telescope mounted in the fuselage of the plane. It's quite an amazing thing, it rotates on a single bearing and is isolated from the vibrations of the plane. So it's really awesome to see it in flight, especially in turbulence.

The image processing that goes into creating our images--keep in mind that our atmosphere emits heavily in the infrared and so it introduces a large amount of background which needs to be subtracted. The images are averaged over a large series of data.

Hobbes42477913 karma

Woo, infrared astronomy! I'm gonna be on the IRTF for the next three nights checking out some brown dwarfs.

How do you handle calibration images with SOFIA? I imagine the bias and dark images are the same as ground-based scopes, but how do you take your flats?

Also, you may fare better posting your AMA to /r/science or /r/space.

Ultraballer20005 karma

Aww yeah IR is the way to go. Being on Mauna kea is such a crazy experience, especially having grown up in Hawaii.

Calibration as you can imagine is incredibly difficult, we take a series of images of different calibrator stars throughout the night using multiple filters to characterize any sorts of variations from flight to flight or from being at different altitudes.

Don't even get me started on flat fields... we've spent countless hours in the lab trying to figure out the best way to do this, but it the end it feels like we've just been chasing our own tail.

You're probably right about posting this elsewhere, maybe I'll post one in there tomorrow after the flight.

Supernovaee3 karma

What does your typical day include as an astro grad student and how long exactly is your grad program?

Ultraballer200012 karma

Typically people take about 6 years.

A typical day is really quite boring. I sit in my office in front of a computer and analyse some data.. Then at the end of the day I realize what I did was wrong and spend the rest of the night or next day redoing it. Rinse and repeat.

Somewhere in between, science gets accomplished

maakana3 karma

Describe for me in your own words what a black whole is and what it does! Thanks!

Ultraballer20006 karma

A black hole, which is usually the remains of a dead star, is a body whose gravitational pull is so strong that not even an object travelling at the speed of light can escape it.

On Earth, you need to reach a certain velocity to escape its gravitational pull.. you need to be going super damn fast to escape it, hence why you can't just jump really hard to go into space. Well, for a black hole not even light can travel fast enough to escape it's pull.

Baconmonster1233 karma

Whats the average flying altitude for your plane? Is it higher than most jet airliners?

Ultraballer20003 karma

It's about 41000 ft, but I believe it can fly higher. It's higher than most typical commercial airliners

tusselago3 karma

I'm considering leaving my career as a software developer and go back to school to study physics/astronomy, aiming for a PhD, because space. It's awesome. My question is this, how hard is it to get a job as an astronomer? I understand that there aren't that many astronomers out there, but are there ones that, say, unpack groceries at the local grocery store because there are even fewer jobs? (I'm thinking globally, don't really care where I work as long as I get to do something I love.)

Also, how valuable would my background in development be? My guess is that it can definitely come in handy?

Ultraballer20006 karma

Having a background in software development will definitely come in handy, since a lot of what is involved in astronomy/astrophysics is running models and messing with data.

I think if you look at the statistics.. most astronomy PhD's have jobs. But I think it's rare that they are continuing the same line of research they pursued in grad school. Finding a permanent position as a faculty is extremely hard to do since the applicant pool is so high and there are so few spots available.

There are definitely jobs available for someone with an astronomer's skillset but you might not necessarily end up doing astronomy. Sorry this is slightly cynical.

But I think if you love it, then you should go for it. Even if I don't end up landing a faculty positions I don't think I would ever regret this experience I'm having in grad school.

Itroll4love2 karma

that picture need some major this

Ultraballer20004 karma

I joke about this with my advisor way too much

Fizheyez2 karma

You make us proud.

Ultraballer20003 karma


Timbosta2 karma

I'm surprised that SOFIA is viable, given that the 'scope has to a. track continuously; the vectors must be much more complex than a ground based instrument, b. compensate for atmospheric distortion as well, and c. run on a budget that includes aircraft maintenance, fuel, and flight crew. How can this be?

Ultraballer20003 karma

Airborne astronomy has actually been pretty big, but SOFIA is definitely the most ambitious project as of yet.

We don't have to worry too much about atmospheric distortion since we observe at longer wavelengths, but we do need to worry about the background emission from the atmosphere.

The project is employing lots and lots of people, so I think it's great that it's providing lots of opportunities for people (including myself!). You're right though, the costs are fairly high; but it still comes out to be cheaper than launching and maintaining a large space observatory.

Root042 karma

Do you know that there's a city called Sofia and where it is ?

Ultraballer20002 karma

yup! bulgaria.

..I actually had to search "sofia bulgaria" to make sure though...

turtlemedic2 karma

Can't think of a good question so...

How are you?

Ultraballer20003 karma

Not bad, you?

turtlemedic2 karma

Good.Feeling nervous about the flight?

Ultraballer20003 karma

Nah, should be fun/cool.

Viper007Bond2 karma

ITT: People who don't know the difference between an astronomer and an astronaut.

He (she?) is not leaving the atmosphere, guys. They're just hopping on a badass 747 that is a flying telescope. Still cool nonetheless.

Ultraballer200011 karma

haha thanks. It's way better than mixing up astronomer and astrologer.

wonderwood2 karma

Are you nervous about whats gonna happen when you poop?

Ultraballer20007 karma

I've pooped on planes many times beforeso I feel like I'm ready for any poop-related challenge

wonderwood1 karma

Hey, pooping anywhere is good business, but what about when it comes out ready to look you in your eye?

Ultraballer20002 karma

that's the stuff of nightmares.

Kaelisra1 karma

In the NASA Stereo program, some of the pictures (of the sun) have a sphere a few centimeters directly above the North Pole. It seems to be there regardless of the time of day or week the picture is taken, any idea what it is?

Ultraballer20002 karma

I'm not quite sure, if you can show me the pictures I might be able to help explain.

Zoe501 karma

Any commentary to give regarding NASA, budgeting, and NASA celebrities like Neil Degrasse Tyson?

Ultraballer20003 karma

I'm sure you guys all know this but it's a really huge bummer that NASA has to make all these extreme cuts to their outreach and education programs. To me that is one of the key reasons why NASA even exists. But it's always tough to get the things you need when there's so much politics involved.

I think NdT is amazing. I love the way he captures the philosophy of scientific exploration with this elegant simplicity (like Sagan).

Wagsac1 karma

Not exactly really specific for your job, but I'm extremely curious; How long did it take you to get your job? And do you ever see people that don't have masters or doctorates getting hired?

Ultraballer20005 karma

I'm 25 years old and came to grad school right after undergrad (as a physics major). Most of the people working on the science have PhD's or are students associated with the project. We have several engineers on the project who designed our instrument from scratch, and I believe that doesn't require a masters.

eklektech1 karma

if everything goes as planned, will you please open the safe when you get back?

Ultraballer20002 karma

I'll make sure we divert all of our resources to this cause

Crangrapejoose1 karma

Seen anything from out of this world?

Ultraballer20003 karma


MemeticUsername1 karma

Holy crap, you have an awesome job. Any advice for a high school senior who's considering astronomy?

Ultraballer20003 karma

Keep an open mind and ask lots of questions! And if you're serious about it, major in physics in undergrad.

golfmade1 karma

Does being easily airsick prevent someone from getting a job with NASA?

Ultraballer20003 karma

Nah, definitely not.

operating_bastard1 karma

Can you name a nebula after me? That would be pretty awesome.

Ultraballer20005 karma

The operating_bastard nebula does have a ring to it.. but so does the Ultraballer2000 nebula.

Rumking1 karma

What is infrared astronomy?

Ultraballer20002 karma

Instead of looking in visible wavelengths, we study space in the infrared. Studying in the infrared reveals a wealth of information that would otherwise be obscured by dust in between us and the interesting astronomical sources

fuct_up_penguin1 karma

What is/was the most challenging part of your schooling?

Ultraballer20002 karma

Being the only student in my year coming in to grad school. Entering into grad school from undergrad is quite the shock, so it's nice when you have peers that share that experience. However, I'd consider myself extremely lucky that that's the most challenging thing I've had to deal with given some of the things that life can throw at you

bearsfan6541 karma

What inspired you to be an astronomer? Also, how many hours do you work per day?

Ultraballer20001 karma

I was probably inspired most by finding out how much we don't know about space. There's so many fundamental questions that we have only begun to touch the surface of.

Yesterday (or today..) I worked about 10 or so hours. But it varies a lot since I work on my own schedule pretty much.

chupanibre1 karma

it has adaptive optics, right? i've always wondered how this looks in action. can you actually see the micro-mirrors moving?

Ultraballer20003 karma

nope, no AO. I think there are some videos out there of the adaptive optics in action on some other observatories.

mvincent177811 karma

I may be too late, but here it goes, just about every kid says they want to be an astronaut, is this something you always pursued? Or did you think about doing something else before?

Ultraballer20003 karma

hah, I should probably clarify this in my initial post but I'm not an astronaut. I'm an astronomer flying on a plane with a telescope that doesn't quite go into space.

I'd love to be an astronaut, and it would be awesome to someday get that opportunity.

mvincent177812 karma

Well you'll be closer than the rest of us down here. Good luck on reaching those dreams.

Edit: ...and the stars.

Ultraballer20003 karma

thanks so much for that comment

extremeftw1 karma

Have you always wanted to be involved in space studies? I imagine with your grades you probably could of been nearly anything you wanted.

Ultraballer20005 karma

Not always. I actually only got interested in it in my sophomore year of undergrad when I had a conversation with one of my friends about how much we don't know about space. From there I went on and did an internship at a research institution and got a real taste for what doing research in astronomy is like and loved it.

There's this awesome sense of freedom involved in pursuing research, and as I mentioned in a previous comment it's incredibly rewarding.

Ultraballer20004 karma

Although making a crapton of money would be nice, too

gerritholl1 karma

How long is a single flight and what is the total cost for a single flight?

Ultraballer20002 karma

A flight is about 10 hours overnight. I don't think you want to know how much a single flight is.. I'll just say that the price for fuel is enough to fund a students entire college tuition (+ books).

mehmsy1 karma

Fellow astro grad student here, hope you have fun! Your observing trips are way cooler than mine..:)

Ultraballer20003 karma

Thanks! Best of luck to you

jm4341 karma

as an astrophysics undergrad i salute you sir!

Ultraballer20001 karma

keep doing what you're doing!

Physco171 karma

Do you wear pants or trousers?

Ultraballer20002 karma

pants I guess

organizedmutiny1 karma

Do you have a favorite space picture? If so what is it?

Ultraballer20001 karma

there are so many awesome images, but I'm particularly biased to this one (http://www.mpi-hd.mpg.de/hfm/HESS/pages/home/som/2009/12/images/Som_12_09_p0.jpg)

It's my current desktop wallpaper!

NeoSilky1 karma

Do you have Twitter and would you be able to post some photos of it all? :D


Ultraballer20003 karma

nah, I don't have a twitter. I can try to post some pictures tomorrow! They might not be very exciting though.

ModernMrDarcy1 karma

Why aren't you getting a good night's sleep?

Ultraballer20004 karma

Because I need to get on a late-night observing sleep cycle. Our flight is from 5pm - 6am.

miloais1 karma

How has being an astronomer helped your social life vis a vis relationships? In other words, have you gotten laid because of it?

Ultraballer20004 karma

I'm in an 8+ year long relationship so I suppose you can take that into account for both your questions.

I don't think she cares much for what I study specifically, but I know she supports the crap out of what I do

miloais1 karma

Congrats, man. Is she also in the science field?

Ultraballer20003 karma

public health. So she is actually pursuing something that directly focuses on improving peoples' lives.

mostmetalcabdriver1 karma

What are the goals of the observations? Are you looking for certain things in particular? Is it possible to image other galaxies or is the focus on our little patch of stars?

Ultraballer20004 karma

The goals in our flight tomorrow are pretty much just to run a series of tests with our instrument aboard the plane to make sure everything is in order. Our real observations are taking place in June, where we'll be getting more images of the galactic center.

As far as studying the galactic center, we're looking for an understanding of what's going on there. There's this huge ring of dust around it that is slightly difficult to explain. There's clusters of massive, bright stars--even one that's believed to be the brightest star in the Galaxy. It's an amazingly unique place in our Galaxy that seems to be full of surprises. The latest one being this gas cloud falling in to the black hole and is expected to be crossing its event horizon in January.

We have definitely imaged other galaxies, so we are capable of seeing things far beyond on own galaxy.

iClarion1 karma

r u scaerd. ?

Ultraballer20002 karma

nah not rly

MA790Z1 karma

Does mirror size always correlate to image/data quality? Is it possible to make smaller telescopes that can do the same things as the larger ones?

Ultraballer20003 karma

I like to think of telescope size like a bucket. The larger the bucket, the more water you can collect in a set amount of time. Same thing with a telescope and photons. And you want as much photons as you can get! Larger telescopes also grant you better resolution, but this also depends on the wavelength you are observing in.

It all ultimately comes down to what you want to accomplish. A series of smaller telescopes have been used to discover transiting exoplanets, so it really all depends on the kind of thing you want to do.

Drunk-Scientist1 karma

You're doing fantastic work! Is putting a 2.5m telescope on a plane cost-effective compared to the somewhat more stationary 10m Keck and 8m VLT?

Ultraballer20004 karma


It's more expensive than those ground-based observatories, but less expensive than space based ones.

We have the advantage over ground based observatories in that we don't need to worry about the weather or 99% of the atmosphere.

We have the advantage over space based observatories because we can fly home every night to do upgrades, repairs, or changes as needed without flying in to space. However, we don't quite get the ideal observing environment that being in space allows.

So I feel like it's a nice blend of the two.

polux_elm1 karma

My first thought since I heard about this: what about vibrations?

Ultraballer20003 karma

Yes, this is actually kind've an issue. The Germans did a good job with the telescope and isolating it from the turbulence experienced by the plane, but it still affects our images. This is especially true since the telescope is exposed to the air (there is no window!) so air can be trapped in the telescope cavity and introduce some noise.

Razvee1 karma

I want to do what you're doing. What path did you take to get there?

Ultraballer20002 karma

It sounds corny but if astronomy is what you really want to do.. don't give up or take the easy route in your studies. The character you build from persevering over what you initially thought was an impossible problem will take you a long way in life, and not necessarily just as an astronomer.

Deary_Me1 karma

What's it like to pee in space?

Ultraballer20003 karma

I'm not technically in space, but peeing on the plane is pretty normal.

yoyoooyo1 karma

What exactly is your job?

Ultraballer20002 karma

I suppose it's graduate research assistant. I do science/write papers and of course outreach.

matzos1 karma

Procrastinating at it best: You going to space tomorrow, but you have to check reddit first... I thought that I was bad.

Ultraballer20004 karma

Haha, it's not actually space. We fly above commercial airlines but not quite what I'd consider space.

Also, I need to get on a late night schedule since the flight overnight.

Evdromeda1 karma

Is it hard to become an astronaut? Is it really as unrealistic to become one as it seems?

Ultraballer20003 karma

Sorry to disappoint but I'm not an astronaut, I'm an astronomer. Although I think it would be awesome to be an astronaut, and I think it is pretty insanely hard to be one.

birdwatcher71 karma

Hello! This is just stellar [excuse the pun :D] to see an AMA on one of my future career choices. My question is, what more about our cosmos has this mission discovered as of yet? If nothing, than what is its eventual goal?

Ultraballer20003 karma

The SOFIA mission is really just getting revved up. The image that I posted and the other images taken in that flight series tell us about the environment around the supermassive black hole in the center of our galaxy, which gives us an idea of what's going on in the center of other galaxies.

Ultimately, SOFIA's goal is to probe the Universe in the infrared wavelengths to reveal things in greater sensitivity and sharper resolution than most other observatories

[deleted]0 karma


Ultraballer20003 karma

Thanks! There's an incredible amount of preparation that goes in to flying on SOFIA--everything from the electronics aboard the plane, the telescope, and the instrument have to be performing solidly for the flight to be a success. I've been working on this project for only about 2 years, but my advisor and the other people in our group have been working on it for over 10 years and have gone through so much to see it through and accomplish amazing science.

I think it'd be awesome to fly on a spacecraft into orbit, I'd love the opportunity but there's a pretty large waiting list of qualified astronauts.

tonyperkissenior0 karma

would you rather float away to your death while in space, or burn up coming back into the atmosphere?

Ultraballer20002 karma

I think it'd be cool to end your life in a fiery blaze of glory descending from the sky, but maybe that's just me.

tonyperkissenior1 karma

yeah but think about how cool it would be for your body to float by mars one day, your remains would probably last longer than human civilization.

Ultraballer20002 karma

haha that's quite beautiful/creepy imagery.

It would be cool though, but I still like the fiery blaze.

NDLCF770 karma

Are you afraid of what might happen when you lift off?

Ultraballer20003 karma

Not anymore so than on a typical airplane. The take-off and landing are very much like a regular flight, except I get to sit in first class. They even have the fasten seat belts and no smoking signs.

harrycash850 karma

Will you be my friend? Also, what's your take on DOMA?

Ultraballer20006 karma

haha, sure. It's awful and it's sad to me how there are so many people that are so devoted to denying liberties and happiness to other people.

BrodyApproved-1 karma

What is your favorite pizza place?

Ultraballer20004 karma

apizza scholls in portland

comix_corp-1 karma

Does it have a toilet? If yes, take a massive shit in it

Ultraballer20007 karma

It does, I'll take a picture of it tomorrow. And I plan on eating chipotle before the flight.. so I will do this.

hudsterboy-2 karma

Can you rap?

Ultraballer20002 karma

no :(

Karl_von_Moor-2 karma

Are you a little bitch that cries in space?

Ultraballer20003 karma

we're not technically in space, and I don't technically cry

Karl_von_Moor1 karma

Oh, and by the way, i did not mean to insult you in any way. There was a post yesterday about how astronauts can't cry in space because of gravity, and later on there was another one making fun of the first by saying that astronauts can't cry in space because NASA does not hire little bitches :)

Ultraballer20001 karma

Haha, I didn't catch that post.

NotAsEasy-2 karma

Is that black hole the result of the LHC being in use?

Ultraballer20004 karma

Not since the last time we've looked at it

whykasim-4 karma

do you believe in the illuminati?

Ultraballer20006 karma