by Jeff Foust —
WASHINGTON — NASA’s fiscal year 2021 funds inquire proposes cancelling an airborne observatory, a transfer that has vastly very a lot surprised many astronomers nonetheless is also no longer the predominant time the venture has faced termination.
The funds proposal, launched Feb. 10, integrated the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) among the many applications slated for termination. SOFIA, which received $85.2 million within the fiscal year 2020 appropriations invoice, would secure $12 million in fiscal year 2021 to discontinuance out this system and mothball the observatory.
SOFIA is a Boeing 747 with a 2.5-meter telescope mounted in its fuselage. Geared up with a put of infrared devices, it carries out observations while at altitude, above quite a bit of the atmospheric water vapor that absorbs infrared gentle. The venture is a joint effort with the German enviornment agency DLR.
In its funds paperwork, the White Condo’s Place of work of Administration and Funds (OMB) mentioned that SOFIA’s scientific return didn’t define its expense. SOFIA is currently the 2nd most costly astrophysics mission at NASA, within the motivate of finest the Hubble Condo Telescope, which received $98.3 million in 2019 and for which NASA requested $88.3 million in 2021. The James Webb Condo Telescope, although, would possibly maybe be extra dear to operate — an estimated $172 million a year, in step with the funds proposal — once it enters provider after its 2021 launch.
OMB mentioned that SOFIA “has no longer delivered top of the vary data products or science on par with diversified huge science missions. Future projections attain no longer point out a dramatic improvement in SOFIA’s scientific productiveness within the next couple of years.” The high running bills of an airborne platform treasure SOFIA “ends in low-price efficiency as compared with most observatories.”
NASA supplied same language in its funds justification. “SOFIA’s annual operations funds is the 2nd most costly running mission within the Astrophysics Division (after the Hubble Condo Telescope), yet the science productiveness of the mission is no longer on par with diversified huge science missions,” it mentioned. “Dramatic improvement in SOFIA’s scientific productiveness is no longer anticipated.”
A month earlier, although, NASA used to be singing a diversified tune. “Their plans for his or her prolonged mission encompass quite a bit of most traditional initiatives that can boost SOFIA’s provider to the neighborhood,” mentioned Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, for the duration of a SOFIA town hall meeting on the 235th Meeting of the American Massive Society (AAS) Jan. 7 in Honolulu. “The SOFIA group is working onerous to put in power those changes and make those improvements.”
Those improvements came from a pair of reports that NASA commissioned in 2018, one to survey the operations of the observatory and the diversified its science. Those reports concluded with tricks on guidelines on how to make stronger the efficiency of SOFIA.
“We need extra discoveries per buck,” mentioned Jim Jackson, affiliate director for evaluate on the SOFIA Science Center, which is bustle by the Universities Condo Study Group (USRA), at that town hall meeting. “We favor to optimize the label proposition of the observatory.”
That optimization, he mentioned, contains automating extra of the staring at direction of and altering the cadence of flights, equivalent to extra flights that final eight hours in voice of ten. Jackson mentioned the shorter flights elevate less gasoline, which allow the aircraft to realize the stratosphere faster. “It makes worthy extra sense to realize 5 eight-hour flights than four ten-hour flights, because you utilize beyond regular time, web, within the stratosphere.”
“As soon as we roll out this blueprint,” he concluded, “I am confident that we would possibly maybe well presumably be a premier facility for the impending many years.” That’s namely lawful, he wisely-known, for far infrared observations, which even JWST would possibly maybe well presumably no longer be in a position to carry out.
USRA spokesperson Suraiya Farukhi mentioned Feb. 13 there have to no longer any changes deliberate to SOFIA operations in gentle of the funds proposal, highlighting a name of scientific discoveries enabled by the observatory that were offered within the smash month’s AAS meeting. “The SOFIA group will pause the direction and continue to provide the international neighborhood with high-quality data that addresses key topical science questions primarily based solely on SOFIA’s provocative capabilities.”
Right here’s no longer the predominant time that NASA has proposed terminating SOFIA. In its fiscal year 2015 funds proposal, the agency also sought to conclude the observatory, appropriate as it used to be device to originate its top mission after an prolonged style cycle.
NASA management mentioned then a lack of resources led it to propose cancelling SOFIA. “It turned out that we had to make very advanced picks referring to the place we mosey along with astrophysics and planetary science and Earth science, and SOFIA came about to be what fell off the plate this time,” Charles Bolden, NASA administrator on the time, mentioned after the liberate of the funds.
Congress, although, rejected the proposed termination of SOFIA and funded the mission in fiscal year 2015 and subsequent years. It also integrated language in a 2019 spending invoice combating NASA from including SOFIA in a senior evaluate of prolonged missions, appropriate as SOFIA used to be completing its 5-year top mission. NASA as a substitute conducted the science and operations critiques of SOFIA.
Amongst the observatory’s backers in Congress is Condo Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), whose district is adjoining to the Palmdale, California, facility that serves as SOFIA’s home substandard. McCarthy has no longer commented on the fiscal year 2021 funds proposal, nonetheless in a Dec. 17 commentary referring to the passage of fiscal year 2020 appropriations bills, he integrated SOFIA funding as surely one of the well-known “District and California priorities that McCarthy helped stable.”