NASA and DLR, the German space agency, announced on April 28 that an aerial astrophysics observatory will cease operations in September. The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), which is a Boeing 747 featuring a 2.7-meter infrared telescope attached to its fuselage, will complete its present extended flight no later than September 30, according to the authorities.
SOFIA’s long-term viability has been questioned in recent years due to its high operational costs. Except for the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA spends around $85 million per year on SOFIA, more than just about any other operational astrophysics flight. NASA recommended cutting financing for SOFIA in its budget recommendations for fiscal years 2021 and 2022, only for Congress to restore funding.
In November, the Astro2020 astrophysics decadal assessment proposed that NASA shut down SOFIA due to its high cost and little scientific productivity. “In relation to its expenditures, SOFIA has not yet been scientifically productive or significant over its lifetime,” the survey’s final report said, recommending that NASA shut down SOFIA by 2023.
SOFIA authorities at the USRA (Universities Space Research Association), which oversees science operations, contended in January that the decadal assessment was based on outdated data that did not represent advancements in SOFIA’s scientific production, such as greater observing time and more publications.
However, in its 2023 fiscal year budget plan, NASA proposed no funding for SOFIA once again. However, the agency needed to reach an agreement with DLR before terminating SOFIA since the German agency owns a 20% stake in the program and its expenditures.
The agencies did not say how they plan to shut down SOFIA. “SOFIA will complete its scheduled activities for the fiscal year 2022, followed by an orderly shutdown,” NASA said, adding that the data it acquired would be archived online.
The preparations for discontinuing SOFIA operations are being discussed with DLR, NASA, and the Deutsches SOFIA Institut, USRA’s German partners on SOFIA, according to Suraiya Farukhi, who works as the director in charge of the external communications for USRA. More than 70 SOFIA flights are scheduled, with more than 30 of them taking place during a southern launch in New Zealand.
She noted that in the most recent request for SOFIA proposals, Cycle 9, over 100 observing programs were chosen, but that not all of them would be finished by the close of September. USRA requested bids for a new series of SOFIA observations, Cycle 10, to start in October 2022, earlier this year. Those plans will be “put on hold” until NASA provides more information, she said.
“The conclusion of SOFIA flight operations is far from the end of German-American cooperation,” NASA associate administrator for science Thomas Zurbuchen said in a DLR statement. He added a collaborative workshop between the agencies will be held this summer to spot possible new projects “in future scientific disciplines.”