NASA's Flying Telescope ends operations

NASA’s Flying Telescope ends operations

Arguably the most famous and most successful observatory in history, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has provided unprecedented images that have impressed the public and astronomers alike for more than 30 years. But still, there is nothing special about Hubble. In the end, it is just a large optical telescope that has the advantage of being in space and not on the surface of the Earth. In fact, it has long been believed that Hubble is no different from contemporary spy satellites operated by the National Reconnaissance Office – it is only pointed in a different direction.

However, there are some truly unique instruments in NASA’s observing arsenal, and while they may not have a well-known name as the Hubble or James Webb Space Telescopes, they are still incredible feats of engineering. Perhaps the best example of this is the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), an airborne infrared telescope built in a retired plane that is truly one of a kind.

Unfortunately, operating this unique atmospheric telescope is very expensive; With an annual operating cost of about $85 million, it is one of the agency’s most expensive ongoing astrophysics missions. After twelve years of observations, NASA and partners at the German Aerospace Center decided to end the Sophia program after its current mission ended in September.

As the telescope approaches making its final observations, it seems like a good time to take a look at this amazing program and why the US and German space centers decided it was time to put SOFIA back into the hangar.

eye in the sky

By making her astronomical observations while flying through the stratosphere at an altitude of about twelve kilometers (40,000 feet), Sophia is literally and figuratively a middle ground between ground-based and space-based telescopes. Its operational altitude means the telescope is above the vast majority of water vapor in the atmosphere that would block some of the infrared frequencies from reaching the Earth’s surface, while its ability to maintain and upgrade regularly gives it the kind of scientific flexibility normally associated with an observatory on Earth. Earth.

Key to Sophia’s program is an aircraft large enough to carry the telescope, along with its instruments and staff to operate it, to the altitude required for stable, long-term flights. In this case, it’s the Boeing 747SP wide-body aircraft that originally started its career with Pan Am in 1977.

This special “SP” variant of the iconic 747 was specifically designed to fly longer, faster and higher by removing part of the fuselage and making other modifications to save mass. Built in relatively limited numbers for flights between New York and the Middle East, the airframe is one of four 747SPs still flying.

Significant structural modifications were required for the 747SP to carry the 17-metric-ton (38,000-pound) telescope, but certainly nothing more conspicuous than a large door that could be opened during flight to expose the 2.7-meter (8.8 ft) primary mirror. To prevent the flow of wind when opening the door, which could lead to unacceptable vibrations in the optics, a pronounced “hump” was added to the rear of the fuselage to redirect the high-velocity airflow before it reached the hatch. Some turbulent air always enters the room, but it can be compensated for with the telescope mount, which uses a combination of pressurized oil bearings, counterweights, gyroscopes, and magnetic torque drivers to stabilize and guide the instrument.

strong competition

The SOFIA telescope is the largest telescope ever installed in an aircraft, a record that almost certainly will never be shattered. However, its primary mirror dwarfs in front of the 6.5-meter (21-foot) reflector of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), NASA’s new flagship infrared telescope with only a few days left online. While it is difficult to make a direct comparison between the two observatories and their capabilities, there is no doubt that JWST represents the future of infrared astronomy. At the same time, Sophia has faced criticism over the past few years about the paucity of scientific data it has been able to collect compared to its high development and operating costs.

While the JWST makes SOFIA largely redundant, this does not mean that the scientific community will not mourn its loss. Not only is Sophia able to monitor a much wider range of infrared frequencies, but its unique ability to target the moon directly led to the confirmation of the year 2020 of water on the sunlit surface of the moon. It can also be upgraded over time to make observations with instruments that may not exist today, while JWST is far from Earth to receive the kind of additional upgrades that Hubble did.

Simply put, there is a valid need for an observatory like Sophia. But unless NASA can figure out a cheaper way to build and operate one, it may be an unrealized field of science.

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