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Kuiper Airborne Observatory

Phase: Past

Launch Date: May 21, 1975

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For over twenty years, the Kuiper Airborne Observatory (KAO) was operated as the world's only airborne telescope devoted exclusively to astronomical research. KAO was named after the astronomer Gerard P. Kuiper. Carrying a 36-inch reflecting telescope, KAO was a converted C-141 military cargo plane with a 160-foot wingspan. Flying at altitudes of 41,000 to 45,000 feet, above 99 percent of the Earth's infrared-absorbing water vapor, KAO was capable of conducting infrared astronomy. KAO ended its long service to astronomy in October 1995, so that work could begin on its successor, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA).

Much of the science produced by KAO studied the formation and birth of stars. Prior to KAO, little was known about star birth. Today star formation is a major discipline in current astronomical research. KAO was the scene of many other major discoveries including:

  • the first sightings of the rings of Uranus (1977)
  • the first definitive detection of water vapor in a comet (1986)
  • the definitive identification of an atmosphere on Pluto in (1988)
  • the discovery of the unexpected infrared luminosity of galaxies
  • the discovery of the first natural laser in space (1995)


Last Updated Date: April 24, 2015

Related Links
  • KAO Feature Story -
  • KAO video -
  • KAO Time Capsule (Feb 2011) -