Astronomers want ‘strong finish’ for SOFIA

Astronomers want ‘strong finish’ for SOFIA

Astronomers want ‘strong finish’ for SOFIA

PASADENA, Calif. — The organization that operates an airborne astronomical observatory that NASA is closing this year is looking to end the project on a climax.

In a statement dated June 15, the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) recognized the impending end of the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a Boeing 747 with a 2.7-meter infrared telescope in the fuselage. On April 28, NASA announced an agreement with its partner SOFIA, the German space agency DLR, to suspend SOFIA’s flight operations at the end of September. That announcement came a month after NASA’s fiscal year 2023 budget request suggested ending the project.

USRA had opposed attempts to end SOFIA in the past, including proposals in the 2021 and 2022 budgets. In both cases, Congress restored funding. However, in the statement, USRA said it would work with NASA to phase out SOFIA.

“USRA is proud to partner with NASA on SOFIA whose legacy is remarkable,” it said. “USRA looks forward to working with NASA to ensure a safe flight out of SOFIA and ensure its scientific legacy is properly captured for the astronomical community.”

Project officials offered a similar message at a June 15 town hall meeting at the 240th meeting of the American Astronomical Society here. They said SOFIA flights would continue through the end of September, including a deployment to New Zealand later this month for sightings in the southern hemisphere.

“The focus on the project at this point remains on current operations. Safe operations are our top priority,” said Naseem Rangwala, NASA project scientist for SOFIA. “Our focus is also on maximizing scientific observations before the end of this mission. Our aim is to give the SOFIA mission and the team a very strong finish.”

That includes, she said, additional flights after SOFIA returns from New Zealand later this summer. That would enable SOFIA to complete up to 80% of its high-priority observations by the end of September.

Rangwala said the project is still working on a detailed schedule for the SOFIA shutdown. Those plans include putting data in archives, transferring the project staff and transferring the instruments and even the plane and telescope. “We want it to go into a museum with the telescope on it,” she said of the plane, “but we’re working on that.”

However, there was some frustration among astronomers during the standalone session over the end of SOFIA. A few called on their colleagues to write to Congress in a last-ditch effort to avoid termination.

Paul Hertz, NASA director of astrophysics, said at the city hall meeting that NASA followed the recommendation of the decade study published last November, which concluded that SOFIA’s modest scientific productivity did not justify its high operating costs: at $85 million a year, only Hubble is currently more expensive to operate under current astrophysics missions. “NASA and DLR have jointly accepted that recommendation, so this is the last year of operations,” he said.

Astronomers at the meeting worried that ending SOFIA would create a gap in far infrared observations, at wavelengths longer than even JWST can observe.

“While we all wish we could always have capabilities on every wavelength, historically that has never been true,” Hertz said. It’s not the end of mid- and far-infrared astronomy, he said, because of smaller missions. NASA will also consider proposals for larger far-infrared space observatories next year for its first probe-class astrophysics mission.

SOFIA proponents have argued that the 10-year study failed to take into account SOFIA’s increased scientific productivity in recent years when it recommended its discontinuation of operations. Rangwala said the decade used the number of articles in peer-reviewed publications as a measure of scientific productivity.

“We’re ending at a science and performance peak,” Margaret Meixner, SOFIA director for science missions at USRA, said at the City Hall meeting. “It is personally sad to see it closing at that point.”