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NASA's Most Powerful Infrared Telescope Lives in a Modified 747

NASA Sofia on ground

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy -- a modified Boeing 747 that holds the largest airborne observatory -- sits on the tarmac awaiting its latest flight.FoxNews.com / Mike Lundin

When is a plane not a plane? When it's a telescope, of course.

NASA has recently launched SOFIA -- The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy -- which lives onboard a modified Boeing 747. At $500 million, the former commercial Pan Am passenger airliner comes with a 17-ton telescope, an oversized window in the fuselage, and a cabin full of instruments carefully studying the view.

"SOFIA is the world's largest airborne observatory," S. Pete Worden, director of the NASA Ames Research Center, told FoxNews.com.

"Light enters the instruments and scientists on board are actually able to analyze that data in real time as it comes in through their computers," SOFIA project scientist Pamela Marcum said.

SOFIA can see things ground-based telescopes cannot see. That's because most infrared energy from space never reaches the ground: It gets absorbed by moisture in the Earth's lower atmosphere. SOPHIA gets around, (or rather above) that astronomical challenge by flying at 45,000 feet -- above most atmospheric moisture.

There, SOFIA's telescope analyzes spectrums of this particular light. Images captured by SOFIA show the core of M82, a nearby galaxy. Another pink and orange image shows the glow of heat from Jupiter's interior.

Scientists say infrared wavelengths hold valuable clues about the births of stars and planets, even our own.

"We know almost nothing about how the Earth was formed, and with this instrument we can find regions of so called 'stellar nurseries' where we can begin to see planets coming together," Worden said. "This is the region of the spectrum where we can see stars forming, we can see planets forming, we can see molecules coming together in the interstellar medium that may be the origin of life."

Scientists say SOFIA can see things ground-based telescopes can't, and unlike those fixed in space like Hubble, it can be easily repaired and upgraded after the 747 lands.

Touted as the world's largest airborne observatory, SOFIA represents a half-billion dollar partnership between NASA and Germany's space program. Officials says this flying telescope is crucial to the study of astronomy, and has a secondary mission as well: getting kids engaged in science.

Marita Beard teaches astronomy at Branhm High School in San Jose. She's one of eight teachers who have flown on SOFIA, and couldn't wait to share her experience with her students.

"They know you have personally participated in a program like this, that you have sat side by side with an astronomer, you can tell them exactly what an astronomer does or exactly what a telescope operator does, the kids will listen and think, 'Hey, I can do this,'" Beard told FoxNews.com.

One of her of students, Shanna Howard, said that Beard "came back and helped us explain and relate what we're learning to something important and exciting."

And what did Beard like best? "The most exciting part was looking at the center of our galaxy," she said.

SOFIA has taken 82 flights already, all at night, and each one lasting about 10 hours.

Eventually, NASA hopes to fly 1,000 research-hours every year, as a new dimension of space exploration takes flight.

Claudia Cowan currently serves as Fox News Channel's (FNC) San Francisco-based correspondent. She joined the network in April 2008.