NASA and Germany’s house company are completely shutting down the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a telescope-on-a-plane that has been scrutinized for years for its excessive price and low scientific output. Since 2014 the observatory has flown above the water vapour in Earth’s ambiance to get an unobscured view of celestial objects and to collect information at infrared wavelengths.
Over the previous a number of years, SOFIA has measured magnetic fields in galaxies1, noticed water on sunlit parts of the Moon2 and detected the primary sort of ion that fashioned within the Universe, helium hydride3. But it surely prices NASA round US$85 million a 12 months to function, which is sort of as a lot because the operational bills for the Hubble Area Telescope. On 28 April, NASA and the German Area Company, the 2 companions in SOFIA, introduced they’d shutter the observatory by 30 September.
The observatory’s excessive pricetag, mixed with its comparatively low scientific output, earned it a low rating in the newest decadal survey of the way forward for US astronomy and astrophysics. NASA cited the survey’s advice to shutter SOFIA — put ahead by the astronomy neighborhood — in its determination. The observatory was initially meant to have a 20-year lifetime, however it would now be de-commissioned after solely eight.
“It’s a really troublesome determination, and positively very painful for everybody who has labored on the mission,” says John O’Meara, chief scientist on the W. M. Keck Observatory in Kamuela, Hawaii, who has labored on long-term planning for US astronomy and astrophysics. However “it’s the proper name”.
SOFIA prices extra to run annually than a lot of NASA’s different astrophysics missions mixed. The German Area Company contributes one other 20% in working prices on high of NASA’s share. The observatory is pricey as a result of it requires pilots and a workers to fly and gas it.
SOFIA is a Boeing 747 with a gap lower in its facet to accommodate a 2.5-metre-wide, 17-tonne telescope, which friends out on the Universe because the aircraft flies at altitudes between about 11 and 14 kilometres. It has made roughly 800 science flights because it grew to become operational in 2014. And it flies primarily from its dwelling base in Palmdale, California, though it has additionally deployed to areas together with Germany, Chile, and New Zealand — the latter to watch celestial objects which are seen solely from the Southern Hemisphere.
SOFIA collects information that fill a spot between what’s gathered by ground-based observatories and space-based infrared telescopes, akin to the lately launched James Webb Area Telescope. It’s the solely observatory that may at the moment make observations at some far-infrared wavelengths. “SOFIA is globally distinctive,” stated Walther Pelzer, head of the German Area Company, in an announcement asserting its closure.
Infrared observations enable SOFIA to make different distinctive observations, such because the detection of water on the sunlit Moon. “The shutdown is unlucky for lunar science and exploration, as we now have simply begun mapping water on the Moon with SOFIA,” says Paul Lucey, a planetary scientist on the College of Hawaii at Manoa in Honolulu. “SOFIA’s functionality is exclusive — there aren’t any different observatories or spacecraft in a position to map the water molecule on the illuminated Moon.”
SOFIA’s scientific output has lengthy been questioned. In 2019, 5 years after it started flying, a pair of NASA-commissioned opinions highlighted that the observatory had not resulted in giant numbers of extremely cited publications. Within the first six years after beginning operations, it produced 178 scientific papers, in contrast with greater than 900 for Hubble over its first six years.
In response, SOFIA introduced in a brand new director and ramped up its concentrate on scientific productiveness. A December 2021 replace on SOFIA’s web site says that the observatory doubled its publications over the previous three years, and that the decadal survey “positioned SOFIA right into a static field that misses the large scientific development SOFIA has skilled”.
Requested whether or not NASA had taken current developments under consideration when making its determination, company spokeswoman Alise Fisher pointed to the decadal survey, which states that it “discovered no proof that SOFIA may, the truth is, transition to a considerably extra productive future”.
Charles Woodward, an astronomer on the College of Minnesota in Minneapolis, says that SOFIA’s closure has led to a sense of “melancholy” amongst infrared astronomers, provided that its productiveness had been lately rising. “A good portion of the neighborhood will suppose that SOFIA obtained the quick finish of the stick,” he says.
In recent times, a number of funds requests from US presidents have beneficial terminating SOFIA. In all circumstances, Congress — normally led by Home of Representatives minority chief Kevin McCarthy, who represents a district close to Palmdale — offered funds to maintain it going. The brand new determination would possibly render Congressional needs moot.
Between now and 30 September, SOFIA is scheduled to make its ultimate observations, probably together with a deployment to New Zealand. NASA and the German Area Company will then decommission the aeroplane.