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Sofia, the Historic Airplane-Borne Telescope, Lands for the Last Time


Over the previous eight years, a modified Boeing 747 jetliner has flown a whole bunch of flights on a singular mission: carrying a 19-ton, 2.5-meter telescope often called Sofia, or the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy. Flying a telescope on a jumbo jet supplied a approach to peer into the heavens at wavelengths that might not be glimpsed from the bottom—however the ticket was costly. So yesterday, NASA and the German house company grounded the mission. Its last flight landed early Thursday morning at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Analysis Heart within the desert close to Los Angeles.

Sofia was an progressive approach to gaze on the infrared universe. Infrared gentle is basically warmth radiation—however astronomers can’t probe cosmic objects like dust-enshrouded stars and galaxies with out the water vapor in Earth’s environment absorbing that gentle. That confounds makes an attempt to look at these objects with telescopes constructed on mountaintops, just like the observatories in Hawaii and Chile. However by hovering by the stratosphere, at an elevation of 40,000 toes or increased, Sofia might fly above that water vapor and get a a lot better view.

“Virtually 50 % of the power of the universe comes out within the mid- to far infrared. Sofia has performed an vital and distinctive function for its lifetime, probing that complete wavelength vary, and we’ve been in a position to observe all method of phenomena that have been in any other case invisible to different services,” says Jim De Buizer, Sofia senior scientist at NASA’s Ames Analysis Heart in Mountain View, California.

De Buizer and the Sofia crew have made quite a lot of vital astronomical discoveries, together with measuring cosmic magnetic fields permeating close by galaxies, charting the growth of massive stars, observing Pluto’s faint shadow because it handed in entrance of a distant star, and even discovering water on the sunlit surface of the moon’s southern hemisphere. The info from Sofia’s last flight will map stellar nebulas and assist scientists research the magnetic fields of the Sculptor starburst galaxy.

However whereas flying a telescope in a jet is far cheaper than launching one aboard a spacecraft, like NASA’s Spitzer and Webb house telescopes and the European Area Company’s Herschel Space Observatory, it’s nonetheless not low-cost. There are prices for the pilots, workers, engineers, and mechanics—plus a spherical of repairs to the plane that needed to be made in 2018. Sofia prices NASA about $85 million per 12 months—a big fraction of its astrophysics finances. And that’s truly solely 80 % of the funding it wants; NASA’s German counterparts offered the remaining. It was finally the mission’s excessive working prices, relative to its scientific output, that took Sofia down.

“On the finish of the day, the mission itself simply wasn’t productive. You’re speaking about virtually a Hubble price for operations, however with a fraction of the scientific productiveness,” says Casey Dreier, senior house coverage adviser for the Planetary Society, a nonprofit analysis group based mostly in Pasadena, California.

This wasn’t the primary time its finances got here into query. In 2014, following debates about finances constraints and austerity measures, the Obama administration threatened to chop Sofia’s funding—simply 11 days after the telescope and airplane grew to become operational. However the US Congress opted to proceed funding it. In 2019, after Sofia accomplished its essential mission, advancing tasks that studied nebulas, stars, and galaxies within the infrared, Congress prolonged the mission for 3 extra years, with the opportunity of further extensions. Citing finances considerations, NASA proposed canceling this system within the 2021 fiscal 12 months and once more every of the 2 following years. (The 2023 fiscal 12 months begins tomorrow.)



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