Columbia teachers talk flying in a NASA aircraft

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COLUMBIA — Two Columbia teachers spoke Saturday about their experiences as NASA Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors.

Melanie Knocke, Columbia Public Schools Planetarium Director, and Rock Bridge High School Science Teacher Rex Beltz were accepted into a program that allowed them to fly onboard NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). This airplane is a modified Boeing 747SP with a 100-inch telescope mounted in its fuselage. 

 Knocke said it is amazing how the plane operates.

"There's a really big telescope with a little tiny detector," Knocke said. "And they work together to gather data."

The airplane can fly up to 45,000 feet in the air. This helps the telescope to detect infrared heat without the water vapor in the atmosphere getting in the way.

Beltz said the plane allows the telescope to gather data from a number of different objects. 

"It allows us to fly above the atmosphere and take infrared readings of protostars, planetary nebulas, molecular gas clouds," Beltz said. "Just about anything inside the universe and out of our galaxy."

Beltz also said SOFIA can be used to determine things like how fast stars will form, whether it’s the right conditions for a star-forming region and if planets are obscured by interstellar medium. 

"It was such an amazing experience to be part of SOFIA," Beltz said. "You’re with some of the top minds in the world, and you’re conducting actual NASA research, and it was an amazing experience to be on this bouncing, 747 plane with this humongous telescope that is detecting minute amounts of radiation from millions of light years away."

Beltz and Knocke said it took more than two years to be accepted into the program. They said they flew on the plane, collecting data, for about 24 hours total over the course of two days.