SOFIA Lives!

Contributed by
Jul 7, 2006

I have some great news about NASA! I have it on excellent word that the SOFIA mission is on!

SOFIA is the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy -- it's literally a telescope mounted in an airplane. A door in the side of the plane opens, and the telescope looks out. Earth's nasty water vapor layer which absorbs most IR, so the plane flies above that, and is stable enough for astronomical observations.

SOFIA has not yet been built. It's had cost overruns and technical difficulties which have slowed the production, and NASA was giving it the evil eye pretty seriously, considering chopping it from the budget. There has been a lot of, um, interesting back and forth between NASA administration and the SOFIA team over the past few months about this.

So, NASA has an Advisory Committee (the NAC) which meets to discuss what to fund, what to plan, what to delay, etc. On Thursday morning, Mike Griffin announced at the latest meeting that the SOFIA project will continue. Last month, NASA announced that there were no technological hurdles left to overcome, but given the past issues, that was not a guarantee for funding. But now SOFIA will be flying high.

Of course, NASA's budget is fixed, so any more money to one program means another will suffer. In this case, it's the Navigator program, which encompasses several missions, including the much-anticipated Space Interferometry Mission (SIM) which will look for planets around other stars. These missions will be delayed somewhat. That's a bummer, but on the up side it does give more time to engineers and planners to figure out the very advanced tech needed to build SIM. I'm not trying to blow smoke-- it sucks to get delayed, but it could be far worse, as missions like NuSTAR have seen (it was cancelled within weeks of finalizing the mission proposal).

This reorg of Navigator will free up some funds needed by other missions, like GLAST (a gamma ray satellite I happen to work on), JWST (the successor to Hubble), and others.

I didn't get word on when SOFIA will fly, but I assume it will be before the end of next year, and most likely much earlier than that.

Wow. It's nice to report good news once in a while! My sincere congrats to the SOFIA team, and I'm hoping to see some dynamite infrared images from the observatory very soon.

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