NASA Says Goodbye to SOFIA, Its Reflecting Telescope Aircraft, After Eight Years of Service

NASA has ended the missions of SOFIA , the telescope that witnessed water on the Sunlit  surface of the Moon for the first time in history.


NASA  and its partners at the German Space Agency ( DLR ) have ended the activities of the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy – SOFIA – after eight years. The Boeing 747SP modified to carry a reflecting telescope began development in 1996, completed construction in 2010, and began operations in 2014.

During its period of activity, SOFIA made observations of the Moon , planets, stars and star-forming regions in addition to measuring magnetic fields of different galaxies and detected water in certain areas of the Moon illuminated by the Sun , its main mission and possibly its achievement. more important.

However, despite all these missions, a NASA analysis warned that it only carried out about 178 articles during its first 6 years of life, a vastly smaller number compared to the 900 achieved by the Hubble Space Telescope in the same period . of time. With the completion of its activities, the agency will save a significant amount of funds.

The operation of this astronomical instrument required the participation of pilots and constant maintenance as it was anchored to a ship, so since it was activated in 2014, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy only registered about 800 scientific flights. In the future, data obtained by SOFIA will be exposed in NASA ‘s public archives for use by astronomers around the world, advancing scientific discovery in infrared astrophysics.

SOFIA and the presence of water on the Moon

As was well mentioned, the great achievement of SOFIA was, without a doubt, having witnessed for the first time water on the lunar surface illuminated by the Sun. The fact was affirmed by NASA itself in an official document published on October 26 2020. Specifically, the telescope detected water molecules in the Clavius ​​crater , one of the largest on the star located in its southern hemisphere that can be seen from Earth .

“This discovery challenges our understanding of the lunar surface and raises intriguing questions about resources relevant to deep space exploration ,” said Paul Hertz , director of the Astrophysics Division in NASA  ‘s Science Mission Directorate .

The data obtained by SOFIA was based on previous research that also consisted of examining the presence of water on the Earth satellite , also providing a new way of looking at the satellite and capturing the specific wavelength for water molecules.

Naseem Rangwala , SOFIA project scientist at NASA Ames Research Center , noted that “it was the first time SOFIA had looked at the Moon and we weren’t even completely sure if we would get reliable data, but questions about the water on the Moon they made us try. It is incredible that this discovery arose from what was essentially a test . 

A NASA decision that not everyone shares

NASA and DLR decide to put an end to SOFIA ‘s activities due to the excessive budget it requires and the little scientific output it provides. The instrument had a useful life of 20 years but ended up being 8 that remained in service since its findings have not been correlated with the investment by the agencies: some US$85 million and a percentage of the funds of the German Aerospace Center .

Although the reasons for its end have been explained, several scientists around the world have expressed their dissatisfaction with this decision. Walther Pelzer , head of the German space agency, said that SOFIA is a “world-wide unique”  resource because it was modified to have  a hole in its side to attach the 17-tonne telescope to study the universe during flights to a range of altitudes to take advantage of the lack of water vapour.

On the other hand, Paul Lucey of the University of Hawaii explained that “the closure is unfortunate for lunar science and exploration. There are no observatories or spacecraft capable of mapping the water molecule on the illuminated Moon ” , thus highlighting that there is no another space instrument that is capable of carrying out its missions.