Star Trek’s Lt. Uhura boldly goes to see deep space

Star Trek legend Nichelle Nichols came back to Earth yesterday after a flight to see the Final Frontier aboard a NASA observatory.

Uhura
Nichelle Nichols gives the Vulcan salute as she is pictured preparing to board NASA’s SOFIA airborne observatory for her lengthy flight. Image credit: NASA

Nichelle, 82, who played Lt. Uhura in the classic TV series of Star Trek was lifted into the stratosphere to watch stars being born in deep space.

The airborne observatory called SOFIA – short for Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy – is a converted Boeing 747 jumbo jet. Once in flight, a door section opens to allow a giant telescope with a 2.5-metre wide mirror “eye” to peer directly into the heavens.

The telescope observes heat energy from the Universe, a band of radiation that is absorbed by the air, and so it has to be flown high above most of the atmosphere.

Once aboard, Nichelle replaced her USS Enterprise uniform with a NASA flight outfit to boldly go on the mission. And she carried a Tribble with her – the alien creature that multiplied like rabbits in the TV show.

NASA's SOFIA telescope
NASA’s SOFIA airborne observatory pictured in flight with the door open to its 2.5-metre infrared telescope. Image credit: NASA
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Her flight took off from California on Tuesday evening local time and flew far north over Canada, where Nichelle spotted a spectacular display of the Northern Lights through the jumbo’s window.

She tweeted a photo of it to fans, adding: “Beautiful aurora as seen through the windows! What a treat!”

SOFIA, which is jointly operated by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) can carry a mission crew of 26 as well as the telescope and scientific instruments on it flights to a height of 40,000 ft. Nichelle, who underwent special training and briefings to join them, explained: “The telescope is mounted on a spherical bearing to isolate it from aircraft motion and is stabilized with gyroscopes.” Telescope targets during her seven-hour flight included molecular clouds deep in the galaxy where stars are forming. The telescope also gathered evidence for how water is incorporated into planets.

Nichelle has actively supported NASA since the 1960s when she became an official ambassador to encourage women and ethnic minorities to study science and become involved in space. She played Uhura, a prominent member of the crew on the bridge of the Enterprise, in the TV series and in six Star Trek movies.

A NASA video shows Nichelle being briefed before her flight. Credit: StarPower/NASA

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By Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland has been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. He writes regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy, plus he has authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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