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NASA's SOFIA aircraft preps for final flights ahead of mission end

With operations deadline in September, team eager to squeeze more data out of infrared observatory

The SOFIA aircraft has returned to New Zealand for a final time ahead of the mission's conclusion later this year.

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) is a modified Boeing 747SP aircraft, designed to carry a 2.7-meter reflecting telescope into the stratosphere, above much of Earth's infrared-blocking atmosphere.

A collaboration between NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), development began on the project in 1996. SOFIA saw first light in 2010 and achieved full operational capability in 2014. Its prime mission was completed in 2019 and earlier this year, it was decided that SOFIA would be grounded for budgetary reasons. Operations end "no later than" September 30, 2022, followed by an "orderly shutdown."

Scientists are therefore keen to squeeze as much data from the platform as possible. Following a quick trip to Santiago, Chile, for a two-week deployment to observe the Large Magellanic Cloud, SOFIA is making its seventh and final trip to New Zealand for a look at skies in the Southern Hemisphere.

Thirty-two flights are planned in this last international deployment, and the intention is to observe a wide range of celestial objects and phenomena including magnetic fields and cosmic rays.

SOFIA project scientist Dr Naseem Rangwala said: "We are committed to delivering a strong finish for this unique astrophysics mission, from a place of strength and pride, by giving our scientific community as much data as possible from the Southern Hemisphere."

The first trip to New Zealand was taken three years after SOFIA launched. Nine years on, this deployment will be the last.

There are some concerns within the scientific community that not all the capabilities of SOFIA are available elsewhere, particularly at wavelengths even longer than those observable by the James Webb Space Telescope. SOFIA also has the benefit of being accessible for payload upgrade purposes.

However, budgets are budgets, and the management did not feel that the operational costs of the observatory justified its scientific productivity.

In the near future, SOFIA's data will be available in NASA's public archives. And the observatory? It is currently maintained and operated by NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center in Palmdale, California. One can but hope that a friendly museum will step up to take delivery of both aircraft and payload once the final observations have been completed. ®

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