The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) telescope, NASA’s flying observatory, has now retired after its last flight that took off from the Palmdale regional airport in California at 9:14 a.m IST on September 29, flew around the North Pacific Ocean for seven hours and 58 minutes, and landed at 5:05 p.m. IST.
SOFIA, which has been in operation since 2014, is a modified Boeing 747SP jetliner, registration N747NA, that carries a 17,000-kilogram, 2.5-meter-wide telescope donated by the German Space Agency’s Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahr (DLR). This telescope was used to study the infrared universe and keep track of occasions like the formation of new stars and solar systems.
The development of the SOFIA mission started in 1996. Although its ﬁrst flight occurred in 2010, it didn’t reach full operational capability until 2014. After completing its five-year primary mission between 2014 and 2019, SOFIA received a three-year extension. It conducted observations of the Moon, planets, stars, and more during this time, helping to pave the way for the 2020 lunar water discovery.
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For many years, SOFIA has been a unique aircraft that has traveled the globe while gathering data for research into the universe. The NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center in Palmdale, California, has been responsible for the aircraft’s maintenance and operation. Sadly, NASA unveiled the end of SOFIA earlier this year after finding that the mission’s scientific productivity did not outweigh its operating expenses, according to a report.
SOFIA’s main discoveries
SOFIA made some exciting discoveries during its lifetime, including the discovery of water on the Moon’s sunlit surface in 2020. Water molecules (H2O) were detected by the observatory in Clavius Crater, one of the largest craters visible from Earth, located in the Moon’s southern hemisphere. This modified Boeing 747SP jetliner flies into the stratosphere at 38,000-45,000 feet and lands after each flight so that its instruments can be exchanged, serviced, or upgraded to harness new technologies.
SOFIA’s before retiring
SOFIA had an intriguing 2022. According to FlightRadar24.com, the 44-year-old aircraft flew 143 times. NASA used the ‘Queen of the Skies’ on flights primarily from Palmdale, but also from Santiago, Chile (SCL) and Christchurch, New Zealand (CHC). It was SOFIA’s first and only mission in South America when it visited Santiago de Chile. The telescope was deployed in Chile for two weeks to observe celestial objects visible only from Southern Hemisphere latitudes.
SOFIA flew to New Zealand in June. The 747 was supposed to stay for more than a month, flying several science missions. The 747SP, on the other hand, was damaged by a storm on July 18. High winds caused the stairs outside the aircraft to shift during the storm, causing damage to the plane’s front.
Following this incident, SOFIA returned to Palmdale and continued to operate several flights in California. NASA has expressed gratitude to the hundreds of people in the United States and Germany who have contributed to the SOFIA mission over its lifetime.
Pleasingly, NASA said in a statement earlier this year when it announced the end of the mission, that SOFIA’s data will be available for use by astronomers worldwide in NASA’s public archives.