Space | 23. December 2010 | 1 Comment

Spotted: strange object flying over SOFIA

Earlier this week I received a slightly puzzling email from my colleague Alan Brown over at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center. He reported that earlier this month, on the night before SOFIA was due to start her first scientific flight, a strange cargo aircraft with a very odd propulsion system was spotted flying overhead. At that time, SOFIA's telescope system was still being tested for the flight next morning. Tom Tschida took a couple of quick shots, but when he looked back a moment later, it was gone!

Merry Christmas!


Images (montage): NASA.



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Peter Clissold
23. December 2010 at 13:37

This strange aircraft is SATS (Santa Air Transportation System), which was performing an FAA certification flight in preparation for a mission to be flown on the night of 24/25 December. Later that day, during telescope testing, the FORCAST instrument on board SOFIA was able to acquire a near-infrared image of the forward part of the propulsion system (

These images show SATS moving at subsonic speeds. Obviously, in order to make deliveries to every good boy and girl in the course of a single night, SATS has to be able to travel considerably faster than this. SOFIA was lucky enough to catch SATS as it accelerated towards hyperspace for certification at faster-than-light speeds. (

While SATS is known to use reindeer power for takeoff, landing and subsonic propulsion, the nature of the drive system used to achieve hyperluminal velocities remains the subject of much speculation. It is thought to involve harnessing the hopes and wishes of good children to suck SATS through a vortex in space-time that is created by elves using the X-rays from free-electron lasers to generate a quantum-electrodynamic twirling motion in the vacuum energy of free space. Or something like that.