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  • Check this out.

  • You're looking at a Boeing 747SP aircraft that's been tricked out with a 2.7 meter reflecting telescope meant to observe the universe.

  • But it turns out, it can also help us better understand molecules in Earth's upper atmosphere,

  • which opens the door to rare climate data that we haven't had access to before.

  • A combined mission from NASA and the German Aerospace Center, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA,

  • conducts its research more than 12,000 meters high in the stratosphere.

  • For years, this airborne observatory has been helping us better understand our universe,

  • but it seems as though a well planned upgrade to one of its on-board instruments has given us some important insight about our own home planet.

  • Originally designed to detect infrared light in celestial bodies across the universe, SOFIA hosts eight instruments on board.

  • Each instrument is intended to study a particular phenomena over a wide range of wavelengths,

  • to provide astronomers a unique opportunity to use this suite of instruments at an altitude

  • above literally 99 percent of the Earth's infrared-blocking atmosphere.

  • SOFIA removes the limitations of ground based telescopes that might result in blurry images or even incomplete datasets,

  • as infrared light would filter through the Earth's atmosphere.

  • And SOFIA has already discovered some pretty cool things

  • like the first molecule in the universe, helium hydride, and even neighboring star systems.

  • As SOFIA gathers this data, the information collected from Earth's upper atmosphere is generally disregarded as just background noise.

  • Over a decade ago, a German researcher proposed the idea to upgrade one of SOFIA's infrared-observing instruments

  • to better study the cosmos and the Earth's atmosphere.

  • The German Receiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies, or GREAT for short, received an upgrade to its laser system.

  • However, the upgrade was before its time, and the researcher needed to develop the necessary tools and calibration methods to analyze the data.

  • Now in 2021, they've been able to prove that it works.

  • They looked at data from a 2015 flight which provided some much more critical information right here at home.

  • Hidden in plain sight as background noise was the world's very first direct measurement of atomic oxygen in the Earth's upper atmosphere.

  • And it's important to note that atomic oxygen, a single oxygen atom, is different from the oxygen molecule, O2, that we breathe on the Earth's surface

  • and even more different than O3 found in the ozone.

  • Atomic oxygen is found in the Earth's mesosphere and lower thermosphere.

  • Scientists use it to estimate temperature, and it also helps cool our upper atmosphere in two ways.

  • The first is by photochemical processes, which are when the light from the sun becomes absorbed by the molecules in the mesosphere.

  • The second is by the Earth-atmosphere energy balance cycle,

  • and this rotation helps regulate the temperature and climate of Earth, which is vital to maintain a livable environment for things, like, well, us.

  • So from the data collected by GREAT, scientists are hoping to create more accurate and complete climate models in the future.

  • These will be used to predict the effects of greenhouse gases and understand the relationship between the upper and lower atmosphere.

  • As for the future of SOFIA, it'll take to the skies once again to explore the vastness of our universe from above French Polynesia in July 2021.

  • Scientists hope to use it to search for celestial molecules that could potentially change our view of the universe as we know it,

  • while also studying our own atmosphere and climate.

  • Talk about 2 birds one stone!

  • To learn more about SOFIA's previous discoveries, check out this episode about how one of its instruments found the Universe's first type of molecule.

  • Make sure to subscribe, and thanks so much for watching.

Check this out.

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