SOFIA’s flying observatory takes its last flight

Founded for Good

But despite its achievements, the recently released 10-year survey, also called Astro2020, said SOFIA’s annual operating price of US$86 million – on par with the Hubble Space Telescope and the Chandra X-ray Observatory – does not could not be justified by its “modest” scientific output measured by the number of papers published based on the data taken by the telescope.

From 2014 to 2020, according to the survey, SOFIA flights resulted in 178 scientific papers. The combined data from Hubble and Chandra was used in more than 2,700 papers during the same period. “The committee has found no way by which SOFIA can significantly increase its scientific output to a degree commensurate with its cost,” the survey states. Ultimately, the committee approved NASA’s existing plan to end SOFIA’s operations.

But SOFIA’s six instruments covered a wavelength range from 0.3 to 1,600 µm, essentially the entire infrared spectrum. This is a range that JWST cannot replicate. Although its 6.5 meter mirror is larger, JWST only observes from 0.6 to 28.3 μm. Thus, SOFIA could see in the far infrared, revealing parts of the universe permanently inaccessible to the JWST.

“Losing SOFIA simply means losing access to the far infrared window for at least the next 10 years,” says Dario Fadda, senior astronomy scientist at SOFIA Science Center.

Fadda and Ashton both fear that the closure of SOFIA will push students and early-career researchers away from far-infrared research toward other wavelength regimes. Both also worry that as older scientists experienced with the kind of data produced by SOFIA retire, that institutional knowledge will be lost and will need to be reconstructed.

“SOFIA was not only important for the science that was being done, but also for preserving a core of people who knew infrared astronomy. As with any human achievement, science needs continuity,” says Fadda.

But there are still valuable lessons from SOFIA’s success. “I think the lesson from SOFIA is that there’s a science that you just can’t get by building a full-scale version of something else, with bigger mirrors, more detectors, etc. “, says Ashton. “I hope this will remind you that sometimes the best tool for the job can look very different from anything you’ve ever seen before.”

Nancy McKown, SOFIA’s senior systems engineer, who was previously mission operations manager and mission director for the observatory, has flown the aircraft more than 100 times, including her first light flight in 2010. “I cherish the memories of scientists’ smiles and cries of delight when a difficult observation was executed flawlessly,” she says, admitting that her last flights on SOFIA were bittersweet.

There are no current plans for a future flying observatory, but the Origins space telescope project, which could potentially launch in 2035, would reopen far infrared to astronomers. Alternatively, the Astro2020 committee has suggested the development of a space telescope combining X-rays and infrared. But even if it were proposed and taken up by donors, its launch would be just as distant.

Nevertheless, McKown remains hopeful. “There may be gaps now, but I’m sure the thirst for knowledge will keep the long-term view of the big picture going,” she says. “After all, the data will still be there for us to capture in the future.”

Comments are closed.