Sofia to land forever: Nasa to retire telescope that found water on the Moon from Boeing 747

Sofia to land forever: Nasa to retire telescope that found water on the Moon from Boeing 747

The decision to ground the plane comes on the recommendation of the decadal survey released last month.

Nearly eight years after it began operations, Nasa and the German space agency Deutsches Zentrum fur Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR) are set to retire the telescope that observes the universe while flying on a Boeing 747SP airplane.

Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) will conclude its operations on September 30, 2022, after completing a three-year mission extension awarded to it following its five-year mission in 2019.

The decision to retire the mission comes after an evaluation as part of the National Academies' Decadal Survey on Astronomy and Astrophysics 2020. The report concluded, "SOFIA's science productivity does not justify its operating costs."

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WHAT IS SOFIA?

Sofia is a Boeing 747SP airplane modified to carry a reflecting telescope. The 2.7-meter reflecting telescope has an effective diameter of 2.5 meters and flies onboard the aircraft into the stratosphere at 38,000-45,000 feet. The altitude puts SOFIA above 99 percent of Earth's infrared-blocking atmosphere, allowing astronomers to study the solar system in great detail.

"The observatory's mobility allows researchers to observe from almost anywhere in the world and enables studies of transient events that often take place over oceans where there are no telescopes," Nasa has said.

The development of the mission began in 1996 and became public only in 2010. The aircraft took to the skies in 2014 for a five-year mission. During its eight years of service, the telescope has observed the Moon, planets, stars, star-forming regions, and nearby galaxies.

Its most unique work remains the discovery of water on the sunlit surface of the Moon. This discovery indicates that water may be distributed across the lunar surface, and not limited to cold, shadowed places. The telescope detected water molecules (H2O) in Clavius Crater, one of the largest craters visible from Earth, located in the Moon's southern hemisphere.

WHY IS SOFIA RETIRING?

The decision to ground the plane comes on the recommendation of the decadal survey released last month.

The report found Sofia's capabilities do not significantly overlap with the science priorities the Decadal Survey has identified for the next decade and beyond. "The Decadal Survey, therefore, recommended NASA end the SOFIA mission after its current mission extension," the report said.

While the plane lands forever, Nasa has said that SOFIA's data will be available in public archives for astronomers worldwide to use.

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