FOR RENT: NASA/DLR SOFIA Boeing 747 flying observatory for $1 million a flight
NASA made it public recently that the space agency will stop flying its Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) Boeing 747 beginning with fiscal year 2015 (October 1, 2014). The reasons it gave for canceling the $1.1 billion telescope-equipped aircraft “Contributions to astronomical science will be significantly less than originally envisioned.”
Members of the House Science Committee pressed President Obama’s science adviser for an explanation, indicating there was bipartisan interest in keeping the program alive. It appears that now, NASA has come up with a possible solution – a search for potential partners on the SOFIA project.
NASA issued a Request for Information (RFI) on Monday March 31 soliciting potential partners interested in using the SOFIA aircraft for scientific investigations or for other potential uses. Various partnership levels will be considered. The Partnerships can range from joining as a major partner to securing flights on a night-by-night basis.
Costs are estimated at approximately $1 million for a dedicated mission. Due to the current budget situation, partnership arrangements would be initiated immediately in order to be in place before the beginning of fiscal year 2015. Potential partners are invited to submit their interest as soon as possible, but before May 1, 2014. The RFI is available online at: SOFIA.
SOFIA’s future has taken an additional urgency because the aircraft will require a substantial maintenance check in June of this year in Germany.
SOFIA is a highly-modified Boeing 747 SP aircraft that carries on board the telescope which it uses to conduct scientific operations. It features a German-built far-infrared telescope with an effective diameter of 100-inches (2.5 meters) that allows for astronomical research that is not possible with ground-based telescopes. The telescope weighs approximately 19 tons (38,000 lb.) and is mounted in the rear fuselage of the aircraft.
By operating in the stratosphere at altitudes up to 45,000 feet, SOFIA can make observations above the water vapor that fills Earth’s lower atmosphere. SOFIA is a joint program of NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR – Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt). And it is based and managed at NASA’s Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, Calif.
NASA’s Ames Research Center manages the SOFIA science and mission operations in cooperation with the German SOFIA Institute at the University of Stuttgart. SOFIA took off on its first scientific observation flight on November 30 of 2010 from Palmdale, California. The subject of the first night-time observations was the constellation of Orion.
A native of the Netherlands, van Oene became ‘infected’ with the ‘space virus’ by an enthusiastic school teacher in 1981. Since 1994 he has been a freelance space photographer and writer for magazines and websites in Holland, Belgium and ‘Spaceflight’, the magazine of the British Interplanetary Society. van Oene is also the co-founder and CFO of SPACEPATCHES.NL. This Netherlands-based foundation currently produces all the official Soyuz crew patches for the Russian Space Agency, Roscosmos.