After eight years of scientific work, SOFIA, which has become a jet telescope, is about to take its last flight. But before its end of service on September 30, the flying observatory is making one last trip abroad.
Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) is a joint project between NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and consists of a modified Boeing 747 with a special door built into the side that opens in mid-flight to reveal observation instruments. Now SOFIA is spending its final international deployment in Christchurch, New Zealand, where it has spent six previous deployments.
“We are excited to return to Christchurch to continue studying and discovering the infrared universe,” said Naseem Rangwala, SOFIA Project Scientist, said in a press release.
Related: A photography tour of NASA’s SOFIA Flying Observatory
Because SOFIA can fly above 40,000 feet (12,000 meters) in altitude, it can make infrared observations clearer than ground-based telescopes. In particular, the telescope flies above 99% of the atmospherewater vapour, which can interfere with infrared imaging.
Although SOFIA is generally based in Palmdale, California, NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center, where he typically makes four night observation flights a week, he travels internationally to observe different parts of the sky. One of his most frequent destinations is Christchurch.
SOFIA’s initial mission lasted only five years, although its expected lifespan was 20 years. But according to the most recent ten-year survey of astrophysics— a document released by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine that suggests research priorities and cuts budgets for the next decade — NASA and DLR have decided to end the SOFIA program on September 30. Its high operational costs, to the tune of $85 million a year, simply did not provide a sufficient return on investment, the panel behind the report determined.
During its last visit to Christchurch, SOFIA will carry out around 32 flights with two main scientific objectives. The observatory will use its High-resolution Airborne Wideband Camera Plus (HAWC+) instruments to map the Milky Way the magnetic fields of the galaxy; it will also use the German Receiver for Terahertz Frequency Astronomy (GREAT) to study stellar feedback, or the interaction of stars with their local environment.
“We are committed to providing a strong finish for this unique astrophysics mission, from a place of strength and pride, giving our scientific community as much data as possible from the Southern Hemisphere,” Rangwala said. .
Data from SOFIA flights in New Zealand will be made available in the NASA Public Archives.