NASA and German Aerospace Center discontinue flight operations

It is one of the most eye-catching and innovative observatories in the world: SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) features a 2.7m reflecting telescope mounted into a Boeing 747SP. The observatory offered astronomers new insights into the history of the universe. Since its inauguration, SOFIA was based NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center's hangar 703, in Palmdale, California. But the aircraft was often seen in Hamburg at Lufthnsa Technik's global MRO facility for maintenance. Germany contributed 20 percent of the airborne observatory’s operating costs and developed and built its one-of-a-kind telescope.

Now the two cooperating partners, NASA and the german Aerospace Centre (DLR), have agreed to terminate flight operations in September 2022. "This decision is based on a recommendation contained in the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine's 'Decadal Survey', which develops priorities for the long-term direction of astronomical research in the US. Acting on these recommendations is obligatory for NASA," explained Walther Pelzer, DLR Executive Board Member and Head of the German Space Agency at DLR. "SOFIA is globally unique and, with the start of regular operations in 2014, has been successfully used for scientific research during a total of approximately 800 flights. The teams on both sides of the Atlantic have done an outstanding job. Our thanks go to them!"

"The cessation of SOFIA's flight operations is by no means the end of German-American cooperation," emphasised Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate. "In a joint workshop to be held this summer, we want to work with DLR on new projects in future scientific fields."

The scientific data acquired by SOFIA are available in NASA's archives to astronomers worldwide. The Boeing 747SP completed its five-year prime mission in 2019 and this was extended for another three years until 2022. The SOFIA cooperation between NASA and DLR was set out in a mutual agreement that allocated work packages. Germany supplied the world's only 2.7-metre airborne telescope, which was built into the fuselage of SOFIA, and has contributed 20 percent of the operating costs. In return, groups of scientists from Germany were allocated about 30 science flights per year. Science operations and flights are managed by NASA, which purchased the second-hand 747 and converted it for the installation of the telescope.

SOFIA has completed approximately 100 scientific flights a year since 2014. As a specialist observatory for the far infrared, SOFIA's primary observational target was the Milky Way. The observatory made valuable contributions to research in astrochemistry and astrophysics. The first molecule formed in the Universe almost 14 billion years ago – helium hydride – was detected for the first time ever using SOFIA in 2019. This detection was achieved using the German Receiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies (GREAT) instrument, developed by the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, the University of Cologne and the DLR Institute of Optical Sensor Systems in Berlin.

SOFIA has also explored how galaxies evolve and how stars and planetary systems form from interstellar molecular and dust clouds. With a diameter of 2.7 metres, the 17-tonne instrument houses six different scientific instruments, three of which were developed in Germany – two far-infrared instruments and one optical instrument.

SOFIA has been used for astronomical observations around the world, most recently in Chile in March 2022 and from Cologne in March 2021. For observations of astronomical objects in the southern sky, SOFIA has also been operated from Christchurch in New Zealand.

via: DLR