Conant High School teacher recaps her experiences on board NASA’s SOFIA

  • Susan Rolke stands in front of the sign for the Armstrong Center in her flight jacket. Courtesy of Coral Clark

  • Conant High School science teacher Susan Rolke boards SOFIA. Courtesy of Coral Clark

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 7/14/2021 4:39:19 PM

When Susan Rolke was on board the Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, she got to go up to the cockpit with the pilots during one of her flights. They were out over the Pacific at the time, she said, and all around and below them was dark. Then the pilots turned the cockpit lights out.

“I’ve seen some pretty amazing night skies,” said Rolke. “I’ve been to some dark sky areas – they don’t even compare to what I saw. There were stars where I’ve never seen stars.”

This happened on Rolke’s first night on SOFIA, a Boeing 747 re-purposed by NASA and the German Space Agency to carry a reflecting telescope into the stratosphere to observe space in ways not possible with ground-based telescopes. Rolke, a science teacher with Conant High School, was there for the first week of July as part of the Airborne Astronomy Ambassador program.

Funded by NASA and put on by the SETI Institute, this program allows educators to observe researchers aboard SOFIA, with the goal of improving STEM education nationwide. Rolke was part of the program’s eighth cycle, and she was originally supposed to fly last summer. When COVID-19 shut everything down, the program postponed her flight to this year.

Her week-long experience started when she landed in Los Angeles on Monday, and she and three other teachers traveled to Palmdale, where they stayed for the week. The next day, she said, saw she and her fellow educators at the Armstrong Flight Research Center, being trained on safety protocols for SOFIA before going to a mission briefing where they were told about that night’s weather and flight plan.

Then, on Tuesday night, Rolke took off.

During the flight, Rolke was able to observe the scientists and telescope operators at work. Through the flight’s educator terminals, she said, they could see images that were coming through the telescope, technical information about the telescope, and information about the flight.

The flight plan for that night, to go up the coast of California and then fly over the Pacific, was disturbed by a temporary military no-fly zone, something that Rolke said resulted in an impressive performance by SOFIA’s crew.

“It was incredible to watch them all doing this – pilot’s telescope operators and the science instrument team – everyone coming together to problem-solve,” she said.

The problem with redirecting the path of the flight is that the objects planned for observation don’t stay in the same part of the sky all night, Rolke said, so the plane has to be in the proper position for viewing. In the end, the team figured out a way to only miss out on a half hour’s worth of data.

During part of that night’s flight, Rolke got to sit with the telescope operator – something she said was a first for the Airborne Astronomy Ambassador program, only made possible by the fact that the plane usually carries two telescope operators and only one was present that night.

“It was pretty cool to see what was involved in operating the telescope,” she said. The telescope operator walked her through various basic procedures and had her observe as he worked with the scientists who were on board to make observations.

She was also able to watch those scientists as they collected data. That night, the instrument package on board SOFIA was FORCAST, or Faint Object infraRed CAmera for the SOFIA Telescope, a mid-infrared camera that can record images at infrared wavelengths of 5 to 40 microns.

The targets for observation that night included an asteroid named Hestia, in the solar system’s asteroid belt. Rolke said that the scientists were observing different wavelengths of light from Hestia to determine its composition, with the goal being to find out if the asteroid formed in the asteroid belt or elsewhere in space.

Other targets included the galactic center, as well some red giants and protostars, said Rolke.

The plane landed at about 5:30 a.m., having been in the air for about nine hours. After getting to see other examples of telescope instrument packages on Wednesday and a day of crew rest on Thursday, Rolke flew in SOFIA again on Thursday night.

This time, she had the opportunity to sit in the mission director’s chair – another first for the AAA program, she said – where she was able to observe details of the plane’s flight plan.

Rolke arrived back in New England on Sunday after spending the last days in California visiting the Griffiths Observatory outside of LA and the California Science Center to see the space shuttle Endeavor.

“It was a once in a lifetime experience,” Rolke said. “I mean, so many things happened that one could not have anticipated that I will be just in awe with for the rest of my life.”

The next step, she said, is to look at her lesson plans. Part of the curriculum she’s working on is a two-week unit on wavelengths, which has previously received positive feedback from students, she said.

She will spend time “figuring out how to incorporate all of this amazing information I learned and bringing it back to my students to get them excited about science,” she said.

“Even if all I get them to do is sometimes take a walk outside, or look up at the night sky, or question how this or that works, then I know I’ve done my job as a science teacher,” Rolke said.


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