SOFIA observatory's last hurrah set back by damage from high winds

Boeing 747-based platform now back in California with almost a month to go before science operations end

The doomed SOFIA observatory has made an earlier-than-planned return from New Zealand as the Boeing 747-based platform prepares to enter its final month of operations.

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) was supposed to have lingered for longer in the Southern Hemisphere but was damaged by severe weather in Christchurch.

Observers worrying that "severe weather" might mean turbulence in flight need not worry. In this case, the problem was with some stairs outside the aircraft that moved in high winds during July. While nobody was injured, the aircraft was damaged and deemed unable to make any more flights until repaired.

The timing is unfortunate since SOFIA's days are numbered. The trip to New Zealand was supposed to be a final opportunity for scientists to observe the skies in the region, but with engineers estimating that repairs would take three weeks, managers opted to cancel the rest of the science program.

SOFIA arrived in New Zealand on June 18 for a final set of science flights, but the July 18 weather event put a stop to things. The platform, a joint effort of NASA and the German Space Agency at DLR, consists of a Boeing 747SP aircraft modified to carry a 2.7-meter (106-inch) reflecting telescope (with an effective diameter of 2.5 meters or 100 inches).

The ability of the aircraft to fly into the stratosphere at 38,000-45,000 feet puts the payload above 99 percent of the Earth's atmosphere, allowing for observations of the solar system and other celestial objects not easily doable with ground-based telescopes.

The platform was declared fully operational in 2014 and concluded its primary five-year mission in 2019. Managers announced earlier this year that, after a three-year mission extension, operations would conclude no later than September 30. With the clock ticking, it is therefore a shame that the observatory has had to return early from Christchurch.

After minor repairs, a check-out flight in New Zealand was completed. The aircraft is now back at its base at NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center's Building 703 in Palmdale, California, and science flights are expected to resume on August 22, barely a month before the lights get turned off for good. ®

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