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Flying telescope SOFIA grounded by storm damage as mission end approaches

An image of SOFIA preparing for takeoff.
NASA's Boeing 747 carrying the infrared telescope SOFIA taking off for an observation flight. (Image credit: NASA)

Updated; 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 SOFIA's New Zealand campaign has been canceled after a storm on Monday (July 18) damaged the front of the carrier aircraft, NASA officials wrote in a statement (opens in new tab). SOFIA can't fly until it has been repaired, which the team has estimated will take at least three weeks; SOFIA's science flights were only scheduled to last through Aug. 7.

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 officials wrote in an initial statement (opens in new tab). Although no personnel were injured, science flights must wait for a new set of stairs to arrive, as well as repairs to the aircraft.

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. 

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.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include details of a NASA statement released on July 21. Follow Tereza Pultarova on Twitter @TerezaPultarova. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook

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Tereza Pultarova
Tereza Pultarova

Tereza is a London-based science and technology journalist, aspiring fiction writer and amateur gymnast. Originally from Prague, the Czech Republic, she spent the first seven years of her career working as a reporter, script-writer and presenter for various TV programmes of the Czech Public Service Television. She later took a career break to pursue further education and added a Master's in Science from the International Space University, France, to her Bachelor's in Journalism and Master's in Cultural Anthropology from Prague's Charles University. She worked as a reporter at the Engineering and Technology magazine, freelanced for a range of publications including Live Science, Space.com, Professional Engineering, Via Satellite and Space News and served as a maternity cover science editor at the European Space Agency.