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NASA to ground SOFIA flying observatory mission for good

The SOFIA flying observatory.
The SOFIA flying observatory. (Image credit: NASA)

NASA's flying observatory will lift off for the final time later this year.

Following a zero-funding allocation in the White House's 2023 federal budget request in March, NASA and its partners at the German Aerospace Center (known by its German acronym, DLR) said they have agreed to close out operations of the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) mission.

DLR and NASA cited guidance from the astrophysics decadal survey — a community-informed document generating top priorities for astrophysics research during the next 10 years — in making that call. The latest astrophysics decadal, which came out in November 2021, also recommended that SOFIA, which costs about $85 million per year to operate, be shut down.

The decadal survey, NASA said in a statement Thursday (April 28), "concluded SOFIA's science productivity does not justify its operating costs. The report also found SOFIA's capabilities do not significantly overlap with the science priorities the decadal survey has identified for the next decade and beyond."

Related: Photos from SOFIA, NASA's flying observatory

The 2023 White House budget request also cited the lack of support in the survey, noting that closing out SOFIA is "consistent with the recommendations of the science community."

"SOFIA's annual operations budget is the second-most expensive operating mission in Astrophysics, yet the science productivity of the mission is not commensurate with other large science missions," officials wrote in a description of NASA's allocations in the 2023 federal budget request.

SOFIA will finish eight years of service on Sept. 30, which is a three-year extension beyond its original mandate. The mission uses a modified Boeing 747 airplane equipped with a reflecting telescope to do high-atmospheric infrared observations of the cosmos. It had dodged numerous cancellation requests over the years before finally being felled.

NASA reminded the astrophysics community that SOFIA's data will remain available for use even after the mission has concluded. 

"NASA will continue to advance the future of scientific discovery in infrared astrophysics," the agency said, citing the newly launched James Webb Space Telescope and unspecified "further opportunities" along the lines of the decadal survey's recommendations.

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Elizabeth Howell
Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a contributing writer for Space.com since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she tackles topics like spaceflight, diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Her latest book, NASA Leadership Moments, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.