NASA and DLR to end SOFIA operation

(ORDO NEWS) — NASA and the German space agency DLR announced on April 28 that they would be shutting down their airborne astrophysical observatory in September.

The agencies said the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), which is a Boeing 747 with a 2.7-meter infrared telescope mounted in the fuselage, will cease operations no later than September 30, upon completion of its current extended mission.

In recent years, SOFIA’s future has been in doubt due to high operating costs. NASA spends about $85 million a year on SOFIA, more than any other operational astrophysics mission other than the Hubble Space Telescope. NASA proposed to stop funding SOFIA in its FY 2021 and 2022 budget proposals, but Congress restored the funding.

The 10-year Astro2020 astrophysics review, published in November, recommended that NASA shut down the SOFIA project, citing its high cost and limited scientific productivity.

“Relative to its cost, SOFIA has not been a scientifically productive or influential project over its lifetime,” says the final review report, which recommends that SOFIA be terminated by 2023.

Representatives of the association (USRA), which handles SOFIA’s scientific operations, argued in January that the 10-year review is basing its findings on old information that does not reflect SOFIA’s increased scientific productivity, such as longer observation times and more publications.

However, NASA needs an agreement with DLR to move forward with any SOFIA termination, as the German agency has a 20% share of the program and its costs.

“SOFIA will complete scheduled operations in fiscal year 2022, after which there will be a planned closure,” NASA said, and the collected data will be placed in online archives.

Some 70 more SOFIA flights are planned this year, including more than 30 flights during the southern deployment to New Zealand.

“The termination of SOFIA missions is by no means the end of German-US cooperation,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA Associate Administrator for Science, said in a statement to the DLR. He said the agencies will hold a joint workshop this summer to identify potential new projects.”

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