The German Aerospace Center (DLR) announced on April 28, 2022 that the mission of the Flying Observatory SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy), the result of German-American collaboration, would end in September. SOFIA consists of a converted Boeing 747, housed in the fuselage of a telescope specialized in far-infrared observations, developed and built in Germany. Coming from the US government, the decision is driven by the device’s high cost in proportion to its productivity. But the scientific community opposes the premature end of this unique observatory.
Early retirement for the SOFIA Infrared Observatory?
According to a DLR press release, the SOFIA observatory will complete its mission in the fall of 2022, after completing a main mission lasting five years between 2014 and 2019 with a three-year extension. Based on a recommendation from the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) of the United States, DLR agrees with the decision made by NASA. Latest 10-Year Report on Planetary Science and Astrophysics (decadal survey) November 2021 recommended the termination of stratospheric observatory activity due to its operating costs, which are too high in relation to its scientific output. The recommendation issued by the Academy is binding on NASA, it is specified. The United States covers 80% of SOFIA’s operating costs, while Germany provides the remaining 20%. At about $85 million, they are closer to the Hubble Space Telescope’s annual budget, which would be more profitable though.
SOFIA during the nighttime starry sky observation test in March 2008. The opening in the fuselage of the converted Boeing 747SP provides a glimpse of the German-made 2.7-meter infrared telescope. © NASA / DLR
Boeing 747. 17 ton telescope on board
SOFIA was designed in the late 1990s as a modernized and improved successor to the Kuiper Airborne Observatory (KAO), which was closed in 1995. As of late 1996, NASA and the DLR have reached an agreement to develop a new flying observatory for infrared astronomy. Enhanced spectral resolution, three times greater angular resolution and 10 times higher sensitivity than Kuiper:SOFIA.
SOFIA consists of a converted Boeing 747SP, with a telescope specialized in far-infrared observations in its fuselage. This telescope, which weighs 17 tons and has a mirror diameter of 2.7 meters, was developed and manufactured by the MAN Technology and Saffron-Thread companies for the DLR in Germany, meanwhile acquired by OHB Systems. SOFIA may also use six scientific instruments, such as the high-resolution spectrometer GREAT (German receiver at terahertz frequency), supervised by the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, or the American instrument FORCAST (Faint Object Infrared Camera for the SOFIA Telescope). ) ), which is both an infrared camera and a spectrograph.
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