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NASA's modified Boeing 747 SP SOFIA to be grounded for good

Final flight of Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy will be in 2022

Even as NASA publishes images demonstrating progress in the commission of the James Webb Space Telescope, preparations are being made to ground the Boeing 747-based Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) for good.

The end of operations was announced on April 28, confirming that there would be no more mission extensions for the modified Boeing 747 SP and its telescope. Operations will cease "no later than Sept 30, 2022" once the current mission extension comes to an end.

SOFIA, a joint project between NASA and partners at the German Space Agency at the Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR), was on borrowed time. Development began in 1996, first light was seen in 2010 and the platform was declared fully operational in 2014.

Its five-year prime mission was completed in 2019 and a three year mission extension will draw to a close this year.

"As part of its review of the current state of astronomical research, the National Academies' Decadal Survey on Astronomy and Astrophysics 2020 evaluated SOFIA," said NASA.

The report states that SOFIA did not justify the cost of operation and nor did its capabilities "significantly overlap" with the priorities laid out in the survey.

SOFIA's telescope peers out of a large door in the aircraft's fuselage, near the tail. Observations are conducted while the aircraft is flying between 38,000 and 45,000 feet, above 99 percent of Earth's infrared-blocking atmosphere, according to NASA.

The telescope's instruments operate in the near, mid and far-infrared wavelengths and, by virtue of the fact that the Boeing 747 lands after each flight, engineers also have the opportunity to service and update the payload.

All good things must, however, come to an end. The value of the flying telescope has long been questioned, particularly when measured against the citations generated by the likes of the Hubble Space Telescope.

The Boeing 747SP itself dates from 1977, passing through the hands of Pan Am and United Airlines before work was undertaken to adapt the aircraft for observation duties (including the cutting of that large hole in the fuselage.)

Discoveries by the mission have included that of water on the sunlit surface of the Moon in 2020. More flights are planned for the observatory before the mission comes to an end, including a jaunt to New Zealand.

However, with nothing in the NASA budget for the observatory and a nod from the DLR, it appears that the end is in sight for SOFIA. ®

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