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Farewell to a little-known aircraft that turned into a scientific wonder


NASA has retired its Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), after eight years of operations.  Data from its missions will continue to be analyzed for years to come.

From the start of its development in 1996, SOFIA required engineering ingenuity. A Boeing 747SP jetliner had to be modified to carry the 38,000-pound, 100-inch (more than 17,000-kilogram, 2.5-meter) telescope provided by NASA’s partner on the SOFIA mission, the German Space Agency at DLR.

Engineers at Ames developed a garage door-like mechanism that rolled up to let the telescope observe the skies. In that configuration, it was “one of the largest open ports ever flown on an aircraft,” said Paul Fusco, a NASA engineer, now retired, who helped design the door system, “and the largest certified to fly at all altitudes and speeds with the door open. It was a really thrilling aviation innovation.”

The mission’s pilots couldn’t even feel when the door was open. And the stability of the telescope itself was equivalent to keeping a laser pointer steady on a penny from 10 miles away. SOFIA had achieved a smooth flight and a steady gaze.

And that was only the beginning. By 2014, the observatory had reached its full operational capability, and for eight years SOFIA helped astronomers around the world use infrared light to study an impressive array of cosmic events and objects invisible to other telescopes. 

Magnetic fields observed by SOFIA in the galaxy Centaurus A

“SOFIA’s unique scientific achievements were the result of the ingenuity of the incredible international community that grew up around the mission,” said Alessandra Roy, SOFIA project scientist for the German Space Agency, “which was only made possible by the collaboration of NASA and DLR.”

There's more at the link.

That's pretty amazing technology.  The results of SOFIA's missions were spectacular, both from a scientific and a photographic perspective.  You'll find many of the images here, and they're well worth viewing.  They're every bit as spectacular as those from the Hubble or James Webb space telescopes, taken as they were above the stratosphere.

Congratulations to NASA on a really productive and fruitful scientific mission.  I'd call that taxpayer money well spent.


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