Sofia The Historic Airplane-Borne Telescope Sets Down For The Last Time
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Sofia, a 19-ton, 2.5-meter telescope has been flying on a modified Boeing 747 for over 8 years.  The expense of the mission would have been too much, so it was grounded to protect NASA’s budget.

Sofia flew astronomers high above the Earth’s atmosphere. These flights acknowledged that Earth’s atmosphere is made up of water vapour and would absorb the heat radiation from stars and galaxies.

Jim De Buizer, Sofia senior scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center, says Sofia has played an important and unique role for its lifetime by probing the entire spectrum of light (radio waves). He is excited to see what comes out of new observations with the far infrared radio observatory.

De Buizer and the Sofia team is doing a number of significant astronomical discoveries, including measuring cosmic magnetic fields permeating nearby galaxies, charting the growth of massive stars, observing Pluto’s faint shadow as it passed in front of a distant star, and even discovering water on the sunlit surface of the moon’s southern hemisphere. The final data from Sofia’s flight will map stellar nebulas and help scientists study the magnetic field of the Sculptor starburst galaxy.

The cost for a NASA telescope on the ground is less than launching one in space, but it’s still expensive. When the organization completed repairs to the aircraft in 2018, they felt the need to make these costs worthwhile by investing in other projects with higher scientific output. Operational costs of Sofia accounted for 80% of NASA’s astrophysics budget and was ultimately what took them off the project.

Casey Dreier, a representative from the Planetary Society, states that the project was not productive and expensive.

This telescope has had its funding threatened in the past. Due to budget limitations, the Obama administration had issued a threat to cut Sofia’s funding two years after it became operational. Congress voted to keep funding though and was thus able to extend the project for three more years. The latest round of budget cuts proposed by NASA may cause the program to go under in 2021.

Although Sofia has been shut down, it was doing well. “It’s such a pity. It’s very sad news because it’s at the peak of science productivity,” said Enrique Lopez Rodriguez, an astronomer who previously worked on the Sofia team and is currently conducting research on magnetic fields with it. With current methods and optics, it might be decades before we see another such powerful telescope that could also measure magnetic fields.”

Astronomers use the best telescopes to get the most reliable data. Astronomers like De Buizer and Lopez Rodriguez have published many papers with Sofia that have been well-known, but Dreier points out that in comparison, they produced seven times the amount of papers while using the Hubble space telescope from 2018-2019.

Sofia can’t collect data 24/7, and so it’s not fair to compare Sofia to telescopes that can probe celestial bodies with the same ease. Nevertheless, policymakers still must take a cold, hard look at what projects provide more bang for the buck—and which don’t. The recent assessment of space science project rankings had experts raising concerns about their limited scientific impact, and they recommended termination of Sofia.

The article states that the scientists cannot control operational costs and that Sofia had a good healthy life.

And while the goal of this mission has been completed, it is continuing to use data that has been collected on its flights. Sofia’s last year had its most research-hours and flights, and now other astronomers will analyze that data.

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