The Boeing 747SP-based SOFIA will be grounded for good • The Register
Even as NASA releases images demonstrating the progress of commissioning the James Webb Space Telescope, preparations are underway to permanently anchor the Boeing 747-based Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA).
The end of operations was announced on April 28, confirming that there would be no more mission extensions for the modified Boeing 747 SP and its telescope. Operations will cease “no later than September 30, 2022” once the current mission expansion is complete.
SOFIA, a joint project between NASA and partners from the German Space Agency at the Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR), was on hold. Development began in 1996, first light was seen in 2010, and the platform was declared fully operational in 2014.
Its main five-year mission ended in 2019 and a three-year mission extension will end this year.
“As part of its review of the current state of astronomical research, the National Academies of Astronomy and Astrophysics 2020 Ten-Year Survey rated SOFIA,” NASA said.
The report says SOFIA has not justified the cost of operation and that its capabilities “do not overlap significantly” with the priorities set out in the survey.
SOFIA’s telescope looks through a large door in the plane’s fuselage, near the tail. The observations are made as the plane flies between 38,000 and 45,000 feet, above 99% of Earth’s infrared-blocking atmosphere, according to NASA.
The telescope’s instruments operate in the near, mid and far infrared wavelengths, and because the Boeing 747 lands after each flight, engineers also have the ability to maintain and update the payload. .
All good things must come to an end, however. The value of the flying telescope has long been questioned, especially when measured against quotes generated by the likes of the Hubble Space Telescope.
The Boeing 747SP itself dates back to 1977, passing through the hands of Pan Am and United Airlines before work was undertaken to adapt the aircraft for observation duties (including cutting out that large hole in the fuselage ).
Mission findings included that of water on the moon’s sunlit surface in 2020. Further flights are planned for the observatory before the mission ends, including a jaunt to New Zealand.
However, with nothing in NASA’s budget for the observatory and a nod from the DLR, it seems the end is in sight for SOFIA. ®