On Wednesday, September 28, at around 20:45 local time (03:18 UTC of Thursday), the Boeing 747SPregistration N747NA, owned by NASA and modified to carry a reflecting telescope for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), operated its last flight ever. The flight lasted seven hours and 58 minutes, departing from Palmdale Airport (PMD), and flying around the North Pacific Ocean.
End of an era
Eight years ago, NASA and its partners at the German Space Agency at the Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR) fully launched the SOFIA mission, which is a 2.7-meter telescope set up on a modified Boeing 747SP. This telescope was used to observe the infrared universe and monitor events such as the formation of new stars and solar systems.
The SOFIA mission began development in 1996. It had its first flight in 2010 but achieved full operational capability in 2014. Between 2014 and 2019, SOFIA completed its five-year prime mission and was then awarded a three-year extension. During this time, it held observations of the Moon, planets, stars, and more and assisted in the discovery of water on the sunlit surface of the Moon in 2020.
For years, SOFIA has been a one-of-a-kind aircraft, flying all over the world and collecting scientific data to understand the universe. The aircraft has been maintained and operated by NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Palmdale, California. Sadly, NASA announced the end of SOFIA earlier this year after a report concluded that the mission’s scientific productivity does not justify its operating costs.
Simple Flying spoke with Paul Hertz, senior advisor for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, former Astrophysics Division director, and former SOFIA program scientist. He said,
“SOFIA gave us some of the best looks into star-forming regions and showed us how material accretes to form brand-new stars. And, of an important area of that is the measurement of magnetic fields in the star-forming regions, showing the important role that magnetic fields have in funneling the material down onto these brand-new stars.
“SOFIA also observed water on the sunlit side of the Moon, which was both new and surprising. In addition, SOFIA gave us really exciting maps of some active galaxies with supermassive black holes in them. So, Sofia was a very successful mission. It operated in science mode, full operational capabilities for over eight years, and generated some really important science results.”
SOFIA was a one-of-a-kind aircraft. Photo: NASA/SOFIA/Waynne Williams.
The last flights
SOFIA had a very interesting 2022. The 44-year-old aircraft operated 143 flights, according to data from FlightRadar24.com. NASA deployed the ‘Queen of the Skies’ on flights mainly from Palmdale but also in Santiago de Chile (SCL) and Christchurch (CHC), New Zealand.
When it visited Santiago de Chile, it was SOFIA’s first and only mission in South America. For a span of two weeks, the telescope was deployed in Chile to observe celestial objects that can only be seen from Southern Hemisphere latitudes.
In June, SOFIA flew to New Zealand. The 747 was supposed to remain there for more than a month, completing several science flights. However, the 747SP suffered storm damage on July 18. During the storm, high winds caused the stairs outside the aircraft to shift and damaged the front of the plane.
Following this incident, SOFIA returned home to Palmdale and remained in California, operating several flights. NASA has thanked the hundreds of individuals in the United States and Germany that have contributed to the SOFIA mission over its lifetime. Additionally, “moving forward, SOFIA’s data will be available in NASA’s public archives for astronomers worldwide to use,” NASA added in a statement earlier this year when it announced the end of the mission.
Did you ever see SOFIA for yourself? Tell us your story in the comments below.