NASA’s SOFIA Airborne Observatory Faces Termination Again

 In Germany, GDI, Space

Both NASA and OMB budget doc­u­ments argued that the sci­en­tif­ic return SOFIA pro­vid­ed did not jus­ti­fy its high oper­at­ing costs. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — NASA’s fiscal year 2021 budget request pro­pos­es can­celling an air­borne obser­va­to­ry, a move that has sur­prised many astronomers but is also not the first time the project has faced ter­mi­na­tion.

The budget pro­pos­al, released Feb. 10, includ­ed the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) among the pro­grams slated for ter­mi­na­tion. SOFIA, which received $85.2 mil­lion in the fiscal year 2020 appro­pri­a­tions bill, would get $12 mil­lion in fiscal year 2021 to close out the pro­gram and moth­ball the obser­va­to­ry.

SOFIA is a Boeing 747 with a 2.5‑meter tele­scope mount­ed in its fuse­lage. Equipped with a suite of infrared instru­ments, it car­ries out obser­va­tions while at alti­tude, above most of the atmos­pher­ic water vapor that absorbs infrared light. The project is a joint effort with the German space agency DLR.

In its budget doc­u­ments, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) said that SOFIA’s sci­en­tif­ic return did not jus­ti­fy its expense. SOFIA is cur­rent­ly the second most expen­sive astro­physics mis­sion at NASA, behind only the Hubble Space Telescope, which received $98.3 mil­lion in 2019 and for which NASA request­ed $88.3 mil­lion in 2021. The James Webb Space Telescope, though, will be more expen­sive to oper­ate — an esti­mat­ed $172 mil­lion a year, accord­ing to the budget pro­pos­al — once it enters ser­vice after its 2021 launch.

OMB stated that SOFIA “has not deliv­ered high qual­i­ty data prod­ucts or sci­ence on par with other large sci­ence mis­sions. Future pro­jec­tions do not indi­cate a dra­mat­ic improve­ment in SOFIA’s sci­en­tif­ic pro­duc­tiv­i­ty in the next few years.” The high oper­at­ing expens­es of an air­borne plat­form like SOFIA “results in low cost effi­cien­cy com­pared to most obser­va­to­ries.”

NASA offered sim­i­lar lan­guage in its budget jus­ti­fi­ca­tion. “SOFIA’s annual oper­a­tions budget is the second most expen­sive oper­at­ing mis­sion in the Astrophysics Division (after the Hubble Space Telescope), yet the sci­ence pro­duc­tiv­i­ty of the mis­sion is not on par with other large sci­ence mis­sions,” it stated. “Dramatic improve­ment in SOFIA’s sci­en­tif­ic pro­duc­tiv­i­ty is not expect­ed.”

A month ear­li­er, though, NASA was singing a dif­fer­ent tune. “Their plans for their extend­ed mis­sion include a lot of new ini­tia­tives that will increase SOFIA’s ser­vice to the com­mu­ni­ty,” said Paul Hertz, direc­tor of NASA’s astro­physics divi­sion, during a SOFIA town hall meet­ing at the 235th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) Jan. 7 in Honolulu. “The SOFIA team is work­ing hard to imple­ment those changes and make those improve­ments.”

Those improve­ments came from a pair of stud­ies that NASA com­mis­sioned in 2018, one to exam­ine the oper­a­tions of the obser­va­to­ry and the other its sci­ence. Those stud­ies con­clud­ed with rec­om­men­da­tions on how to improve the effi­cien­cy of SOFIA.

“We want more dis­cov­er­ies per dollar,” said Jim Jackson, asso­ciate direc­tor for research at the SOFIA Science Center, which is run by the Universities Space Research Organization (USRA), at that town hall meet­ing. “We want to opti­mize the value propo­si­tion of the obser­va­to­ry.”

That opti­miza­tion, he said, includes automat­ing more of the observ­ing process and chang­ing the cadence of flights, such as more flights that last eight hours instead of ten. Jackson said the short­er flights carry less fuel, which allow the plane to reach the stratos­phere faster. “It makes much more sense to do five eight-hour flights than four ten-hour flights, because you spend more time, net, in the stratos­phere.”

“Once we roll out this plan,” he con­clud­ed, “I am con­fi­dent that we will be a pre­mier facil­i­ty for the coming decades.” That’s par­tic­u­lar­ly true, he noted, for far infrared obser­va­tions, which even JWST will not be able to per­form.

USRA spokesper­son Suraiya Farukhi said Feb. 13 there are no changes planned to SOFIA oper­a­tions in light of the budget pro­pos­al, high­light­ing a number of sci­en­tif­ic dis­cov­er­ies enabled by the obser­va­to­ry that were pre­sent­ed at last month’s AAS meet­ing. “The SOFIA team will stay the course and con­tin­ue to pro­vide the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty with high-qual­i­ty data that address­es key top­i­cal sci­ence ques­tions based on SOFIA’s unique capa­bil­i­ties.”

This is not the first time that NASA has pro­posed ter­mi­nat­ing SOFIA. In its fiscal year 2015 budget pro­pos­al, the agency also sought to ter­mi­nate the obser­va­to­ry, just as it was set to begin its prime mis­sion after an extend­ed devel­op­ment cycle.

NASA lead­er­ship said then a lack of resources led it to pro­pose can­celling SOFIA. “It turned out that we had to make very dif­fi­cult choic­es about where we go with astro­physics and plan­e­tary sci­ence and Earth sci­ence, and SOFIA hap­pened to be what fell off the plate this time,” Charles Bolden, NASA admin­is­tra­tor at the time, said after the release of the budget.

Congress, though, reject­ed the pro­posed ter­mi­na­tion of SOFIA and funded the mis­sion in fiscal year 2015 and sub­se­quent years. It also includ­ed lan­guage in a 2019 spend­ing bill pre­vent­ing NASA from includ­ing SOFIA in a senior review of extend­ed mis­sions, just as SOFIA was com­plet­ing its five-year prime mis­sion. NASA instead con­duct­ed the sci­ence and oper­a­tions reviews of SOFIA.

Among the observatory’s back­ers in Congress is House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R‑Calif.), whose dis­trict is adja­cent to the Palmdale, California, facil­i­ty that serves as SOFIA’s home base. McCarthy has not com­ment­ed on the fiscal year 2021 budget pro­pos­al, but in a Dec. 17 state­ment about the pas­sage of fiscal year 2020 appro­pri­a­tions bills, he includ­ed SOFIA fund­ing as one of the “District and California pri­or­i­ties that McCarthy helped secure.”

Source: SpaceNews

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