Flying telescope SOFIA grounded by storm damage as mission end approaches

NASA’s telescope-carrying jet has been damaged in a storm in Christchurch, New Zealand, even as the mission’s end approaches. 

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) is a telescope designed to observe the infrared light emitted by the universe. To avoid obstruction by Earth’s atmosphere, the telescope is mounted on a modified Boeing 747 aircraft, which can take it to an altitude of up to 40,000 feet (12,000 meters).

But for now, SOFIA is grounded after a storm on Monday (July 18) damaged the front of the carrier aircraft, NASA officials wrote in a statement (opens in new tab). Teams are currently assessing the damage and repairs are underway, but SOFIA’s observations will have to be postponed until a fix is complete, NASA said. 

Related: NASA’s flying SOFIA observatory is in New Zealand for the last time

The damage was caused by high winds that moved a set of stairs placed outside the aircraft; that movement damaged both the stairs and the front of the aircraft, NASA noted. Although no personnel were injured, science flights must wait for a new set of stairs to arrive, as well as repairs to the aircraft.

“During this time, the mission’s science observation schedule will be reassessed, as SOFIA is unable to continue normal operations until the repairs are complete,” NASA officials wrote in the statement.

The telescope, usually stationed at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California, was sent to Christchurch in June for a final Southern Hemisphere mission. The campaign included more than 30 flights to map the Milky Way galaxy’s magnetic field and to study the interaction of stars with their local environment. 

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The damage comes in SOFIA’s final months: Following the recommendations of the latest astrophysics decadal survey released by the U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine in November 2021, NASA and its partner in the SOFIA mission, the German Aerospace Center (DLR), decided to end the mission in September this year. 

Prior to the beginning of the New Zealand campaign, SOFIA personnel had not yet determined whether the telescope would make additional flights from California before its retirement.

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