back to article SOFIA observatory's last hurrah set back by damage from high winds

The doomed SOFIA observatory has made an earlier-than-planned return from New Zealand as the Boeing 747-based platform prepares to enter its final month of operations. The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) was supposed to have lingered for longer in the Southern Hemisphere but was damaged by severe …

  1. TVU

    The SOFIA observatory project has made a useful contribution to infrared astronomy but it's an expensive way of doing things especially given the advances in orbiting infrared astronomy space-based telescopes.

    1. Snake Silver badge

      RE: expense

      Is it really that expensive? A new Boeing 747SP (if they even are available new), is probably around $420 million (using the cost of the freighter as the base, as they would have bought an SP stripped out). They may have bought it used. Add about $200,000 in fuel per run, plus other overheads and personnel costs. Then add the cost of the telescope itself.

      The James Webb telescope cost $8.8 billion in development alone. Why? Because the telescope system must be fully powered, autonomous, and operate fool-proof, in the harshest conditions currently known to the human experience. That's a tall order and requires tons of money to be thrown at the project until we get it right.

      $8.8 billion is a lot of SOFIA yearly operations, that.

      Plus, they say SOFIA can be updated regularly, rather than a one shot - it's done deal

      https://www.space.com/sofia-observatory.html

      (rather like the constant sensor upgrades on Picard's Enterprise-E, they added plenty of extra abilities later in life).

      1. bazza Silver badge

        Re: RE: expense

        Agreed on SOFIA costs (though I suspect that it's been cheaper even than that - $420million is over the odds for the second hand aircraft they used. The SP wasn't exactly a runaway success, and those built weren't very attractive in general to most 747 operators).

        But I fear that SOFIA's time is done. It's been highly effective, but the JWST is far superior; bigger, no atmosphere to get in the way, colder too; SOFIA cannot compete. Also the JWST has had a perfect launch, and there's every prospect of the mission lasting 20 years instead of the must-do-minium 5. There is a surfeit of science time on JWST.

        I think that, overall, between Hubble and JWST, they have now both destroyed terrestrial or in-atmosphere astronomy, apart from radio astronomy. We've built a lot of very large ground based telescopes. We've now successfully launched a very large space based telescope (JWST 6.5m). Ground based instruments like the VLTI have 8.2 meter mirrors, but any tricks played with interferometry by this instrument will one day be matched by someone trying the same thing in space (and, there are several ways in which this could be done).

        One of JWST's triumphs has been the tuning of the telescope surface, and this leads the way in which all sorts of telescope element position / shape tuning might be done in the future, for assembled-in-orbit designs. And the one massive advantage of doing this in zero G is that if you can join two things together, there's no real barrier to joining lots more together too. JWST put 18 primary mirror elements together perfectly, plus a lot of secondary optical bits and pieces also perfectly placed.

        1. druck Silver badge

          Re: RE: expense

          SOFIA may have been damaged by some rogue steps, but it's been fixed. JWST on the other hand is very vulnerable to damage from micrometeoroids, and can't be fixed. So just in case if the worse happens, I hope they keep SOFIA mothballed somewhere.

      2. phuzz Silver badge

        Re: RE: expense

        Presumably the exact amount that NASA paid would be in a public document somewhere.

        I couldn't find it, but the initial contract was for $311M which was supposed to include the work done to convert it. Mind you, that contract ended up ballooning to about $1B. Gotta love 'cost plus' contracts eh?

  2. PRR Bronze badge

    Big glass high in sky

    When I was a babe, the 200" Palomar scope was just coming to maturity (it was a long road) and surpassing the 100" Hale scope which preceded it. The 100" Hale showed that Andromeda and the Milky Way are different galaxies, that the universe is expanding and a first estimate on size, clues on Dark Matter, 'different types of Cepheid variable stars, which double the size of the known universe previously calculated by Hubble', and more moons on Jupiter (like it needed more).

    There's a Wiki picture of an early chain-drive Mack truck clawing its way up Mount Wilson with Hale's 8 feet of glass mirror. Of course they put it up the mountain to get above thick air and the lights of civilization. (The prior 5-foot scope went up by mule-wagon.) https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/9f/MtWilsonGlass-1917.jpg

    The 100" required funding from several millionaires, John Hooker (Western Union Oil, now Shell) and Andy Carnegie (Big Steel), to get made.

    I'm still amazed that a comparable reflector was worked into NASA's budget using a mostly-stock commercial airliner flying 8 times higher than Mount Wilson, and far-far from the LA smog. (Little miffed at the swab who didn't secure that staircase, but these things happen.)

    1. Updraft102 Silver badge

      Re: Big glass high in sky

      Hooker funded the 100 inch Mt. Wilson telescope, which bears his name. The 200 inch Palomar is named for Hale.

  3. Raphael

    I saw it at the airport when I was in Christchurch last month, during that extreme weather.

    Footnote: The weather played merry hell with our long-awaited holiday we were in Christchurch for. Couldn't get to some places due to blizzards and then major flooding a week later.

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