Wednesday, March 5, 2014

NASA SOFIA: Flying Telescope May Be Mothballed This Year

NASA's SOFIA flying observatory is framed by a rainbow following a shower as it sits on a ramp at Christchurch International Airport, New Zealand during its first Southern Hemisphere deployment. 

Credit: NASA / Carla Thomas

NASA's SOFIA, the flying astronomical observatory, will be grounded later this year unless outside funding can be found for the project, NASA officials announced Tuesday (March 4).

The White House's 2015 federal budget request, which was released Tuesday, slashes funding for the space agency's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a modified Boeing 747 aircraft that scans the heavens using an 8.2-foot-wide (2.5 meters) telescope.

SOFIA will continue flying science missions through the remainder of the 2014 fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, but the aircraft will have to be mothballed thereafter.

It cannot continue its operations without an infusion of cash from oustide NASA, agency officials said.

"This is a very disappointing thing, I think, to a lot of people who have been working on it," Pete Worden, director of NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., which maps out SOFIA science flights, told reporters Tuesday.

"I'm going to work very, very hard to find international partners on this, to enable us to continue with this mission."

This NASA image shows the SOFIA telescope during testing procedures in May 2010, before the instrument's first science flight. 

Credit: NASA/Tom TschidaView

NASA already partners with one international organization on the SOFIA mission, the German Aerospace Center, DLR.

NASA chief Charles Bolden has talked to Johann-Dietrich Wörner, his DLR counterpart, about the situation.

Johann-Dietrich Wörner
"DLR are equally concerned," Worden said. "They've agreed to work with us to see if there's a way forward."

SOFIA is the successor to NASA's Kuiper Airborne Observatory (KAO), which was retired in 1995.

Like Kuiper, SOFIA is optimized to view in the infrared range of the electromagnetic spectrum.

During its roughly 10-hour science flights, the observatory cruises at an altitude of 41,000 to 45,000 feet (12,500 to 13,700 m), getting above 99.5 percent of the infrared-absorbing water vapour in Earth's atmosphere.

SOFIA also boasts another advantage over ground-based facilities, mission officials say: mobility.

The plane can chase down one-off events, such as a June 2011 occultation of a distant star by Pluto, which was visible only from a small area over the Pacific Ocean.

"SOFIA has earned its way; it has done very well," Bolden said during a press briefing on Tuesday. "But I had to make a choice."

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