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NASA’s Aerial Observatory Faces Increased Scrutiny

NASA's SOFIA observatory at Daytona International Airport. Photo: Brendan Byrne

A NASA watchdog is asking the agency to take a critical look at its airplane-mounted telescope that costs around $83 million a year to run. SOFIA is a modified Boeing 747SP with a telescope mounted to the back of it which flies into the stratosphere.

Flying between 38,000 and 45,000 feet helps astronomers take observations above the vapor barrier, giving them clearer images of stars, planets and galaxies.

LISTEN: Take a ride on SOFIA during a mission from Dayton Beach on WMFE’s “Are We There Yet?” podcast. 

But NASA’s Office of Inspector General said the aerial observatory isn’t producing enough science to justify its hefty price tag and is calling on NASA to operate the program under increased scrutiny.

Embry Riddle physical sciences chair Terry Oswalt said the observatory allows astronomers to see what ground telescopes can’t and it’s cheaper than space-based telescopes. “You can do infrared astronomy that would otherwise cost billions of dollars.”

The Trump administration proposed defunding SOFIA in its most recent budget request, but Congress continued to fund the program.

NASA’s next-generation observatory James Webb Space Telescope has faced budget overruns and schedule delays. Oswalt said SOFIA fills the gap as astronomers wait patiently for JWST to launch.

“It would be a big hindrance to infrared astronomy to be without a resource like [SOFIA] for however many more months it’s going to take JWTS up and going,” said Oswalt. “It would essentially turn off the infrared astronomy community for the foreseeable future.”

In a response to the report, NASA agreed with the findings and said it will operate under the recommendations.

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Brendan Byrne

About Brendan Byrne

Space Reporter and 'Are We There Yet?' Host

Brendan covers space news for WMFE, everything from rocket launches to the latest scientific discoveries in our universe. He hosts WMFE's weekly radio show and podcast "Are We There Yet?" which explores human space exploration. Brendan is a native Floridian, born and raised in Broward County. He moved to ... Read Full Bio »