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NASA pulls plug on astronomy program that flies on converted 747

Mars (Madhav fallusion/WikiCommons)

NASA is shutting down SOFIA, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy mission based on a modified Boeing 747SP that once made headlines for finding oxygen on Mars and water on the moon.

Based out of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., the mission is a partnership with the German Aerospace Center. The SOFIA plane carries astronomical equipment including a reflecting telescope that can be used in a way that ground-based telescopes cannot.

The plane flies at 37,000-45,000 feet to take measurement traveling to various parts of the world that can work around excessive cloud cover and other obstacles that face observatories stationed in one place.

The mission was already targeted in President Biden’s budget proposal sent to Congress last month for the 2023 fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1, 2022. The current mission is a three-year extension of the original five-year scope.

But NASA and Germany announced it would end no later than Sept. 30, finishing up eight years of science since it first launched.

During its run, SOFIA has been used to make observations of the moon, Mars and other planets, stars and nearby galaxies. It discovered water on the surface of the moon in 2020, and in 2014 found oxygen atoms in Mars’ atmosphere.

A review of current research by the National Academies’ Decadal Survey on Astronomy and Astrophysics 2020 recommended its end because its costs outweigh its results, and that its capabilities did not overlap enough with the survey’s priorities.


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