Grounded airborne telescope will take to the skies

2019-02-28 04:15:07

By David Shiga NASA’s airborne infrared observatory, SOFIA, will rise like a phoenix into the skies following a brush with death. After being threatened with cancellation, the mission will be funded after all, NASA administrator Michael Griffin says. SOFIA is the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, a 2.5-metre infrared telescope mounted on a Boeing 747 jet. Flying above 99% of the atmosphere’s infrared-blocking water vapour, it will provide detailed views of phenomena such as planet formation and matter spiralling into supermassive black holes. The observatory was developed for NASA by the Universities Space Research Association (USRA). It was almost ready for flight tests in February 2006, when NASA decided to eliminate its funding from 2007 and put the project under review because it was behind schedule and over budget (see NASA leaves jumbo-jet telescope on the runway). NASA later said there were no technical hurdles that the project could not overcome, but did not commit to funding the mission (see Airborne telescope granted stay of execution). The possible cancellation of the observatory sparked criticism from some astronomers who questioned the logic of abandoning the project at such a late stage. In the wake of unrest over this and other cuts to science projects, NASA has held a series of meetings with its newly reorganised scientific advisory committees (see Criticism over NASA science budget grows). The science subcommittees of NASA’s Advisory Council met on Thursday and Friday in Washington, DC, US, to prioritise which scientific missions NASA should fund. On Thursday morning, Griffin announced at the meeting that NASA would restore funding to SOFIA. “The administrator did confirm that the agency would continue with SOFIA,” NASA spokesperson Dwayne Brown told New Scientist. But the boost for SOFIA comes at the cost of another project – NASA’s Space Interferometry Mission (SIM), which would hunt for planets only slightly larger than the Earth around other stars. Brown said it would not be cancelled but would have to be “refocused”. This might mean the mission will be delayed beyond 2015 or 2016,