What is SOFIA?
SOFIA or Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy is an 80/20 joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center to construct and maintain an airborne observatory. NASA awarded the contract for the development of the aircraft, operation of the observatory and management of the American part of the project to the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) in 1996. It’s telescope saw first light on May 26, 2010.
It was developed in order to observe celestial magnetic fields, star-forming regions, comets, nebulae, and the galactic centre. It is based on a Boeing 747SP wide-body aircraft that has been modified to include a large door in the aft fuselage that can be opened in flight to allow a 2.5 m (8.2 ft) diameter reflecting telescope access to the sky. SOFIA’s flight capability allows it to rise above almost all of the water vapor in the Earth’s atmosphere, which blocks some infrared wavelengths from reaching the ground.
Axing the Project
In its budget documents, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) said that SOFIA’s scientific productivity did not justify its expense and could not provide further recommendations on how to improve it’s efficiency. SOFIA is reportedly the second most expensive astrophysics mission at NASA after it received $88.3 million, behind the Hubble Space Telescope which was granted $98.3 million in 2019.
Even though astronomers are shocked at this sudden move, future projections seem promising. The James Webb Space Telescope, planned to launch in 2021, will provide data that partially mitigates the absence of SOFIA. Jim Jackson, associate director for research at the SOFIA Science Center said “We want to optimize the value proposition of the observatory.” at the town hall meeting. However it will still be more costly to operate, an estimated $172 million a year, once it enters service.