Just 11 days after the world’s largest airborne observatory reached full operations, US President Barack Obama has proposed grounding it.
Under a proposed budget for fiscal year 2015 released today, NASA would dramatically slash its funding for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) from $84 million to $12 million. Unless partners step in to make up the difference, those cuts would ground the airplane, a modified Boeing-747 that carries a 2.5-metre telescope.
NASA pays for 80% of SOFIA. The rest comes from Germany, under an agreement with the German Aerospace Center (DLR). Since the mid-1990s they have spent $1.25 billion on the project, earning it a reputation as an astronomical white elephant.
SOFIA began taking science observations in 2010, and reached its full complement of instruments less than two weeks ago. It flies above most of the atmosphere to gather infrared observations that would otherwise be obscured by water vapor. “It’s just starting to produce science in a big way,” says Erick Young, SOFIA’s science mission operations director. “It would be a very bad time to make any reductions.”
SOFIA has a long history of delays and budget overruns. In 2006, NASA tried to cancel the project, but an outcry from Congress and from German partners forced the agency to restore it. Even so, few had anticipated the new cut. “It’s an enormous surprise,” says Dan Lester, an astronomer at the University of Texas at Austin who has served on evaluation panels to study SOFIA.
The White House budget summary suggests that SOFIA is being cut “in order to fund higher priority science missions”, and hints that those priorities might include extending the Cassini mission to Saturn.
The next hurdle for SOFIA was expected to be a ‘senior review’ in 2016, in which independent astronomers would evaluate it against other operational NASA missions to gauge whether it was worth continuing. The memorandum of understanding between the German Aerospace Center and NASA also expires in two years. It allows either party to end the project. NASA administrator Charles Bolden called his counterpart in Germany last week to notify him of the cuts. “SOFIA has done very well, but we had to make a choice,” Bolden said in a media teleconference on 4 March.
With operating costs of about $80 million a year, the observatory consumes a large fraction of NASA’s astrophysics budget, mainly due to the costs of jet fuel and of keeping pilots, crew and other staff on hand. Many astronomers have complained about its high cost per hour of scientific observation. And this year, it was already scheduled for a 5.5-month maintenance check, a federally mandated time-out that eliminates science operations for much of the rest of 2014. SOFIA flight operations are based in Palmdale, California. Its science operations team is at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.
Following Obama's budget request, Congress will determine final budget numbers for all federal agencies. Congressional representatives in California may soon start getting calls. “I guess we’re going to have to start a lobbying effort,” says Robert Gehrz, an astronomer at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
The decision to ground a NASA-operated modified Boeing 747 jumbo jet housing a 2.5-meter (8.2-foot) telescope came just as the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy was fitted with a new instrument to fill out the airplane's complement of sensors.
"I was quite surprised that this decision had been made in what seems to have been a budgetary process without any input from the astronomical community," said Paul Goldsmith, an astronomer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The White House's fiscal year 2015 budget requests a cut in SOFIA's funding from $84 to $12 million next year, but the spending plan can be changed by Congress.
Outfitted with a set of cameras and detectors, the flying telescope was scheduled to be fully operational later this year. SOFIA made its first science observations in 2010, and the 747's flight time has been split between research sorties and testing since then.
"SOFIA has earned its way," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. "It has done very well, but I had to make a choice and the choice was that we would focus on those other efforts and work with out international partners, particularly the Germans that are our No. 1 partner there, to find a way to get as much science as we can in the remaining part of 2014 and then come up with a go-forward plan for 2015 if ... we're unable to find either another partner or another source of money to cover the operational costs."
Designed for a service life of 20 years, SOFIA's strength is its ability to fly above 99 percent of the light-obscuring water vapor in the atmosphere, giving the telescope views in visible, infrared and sub-millimeter wavelengths, according to Goldstein.
Scientists say the airborne telescope can observe in a slice of the spectrum inaccessible from most ground-based telescopes.
"Telescopes at the very driest spots on the Earth's surface can observe, in the best weather, at certain wavelengths throughout this region, but some portions of the spectrum are still blocked completely," Goldstein said. "SOFIA is thus a great improvement compared to all ground-based sites, but is still not as good as being in space."
The jumbo jet flies at altitudes between 39,000 to 45,000 feet (12-14 kilometers) and can provide astronomers nearly 10 hours of flight time each observing night.
But SOFIA has its limitations.
It is not as large as many ground telescopes, putting SOFIA at a disadvantage in angular resolution. And SOFIA is unable to follow up on exciting discoveries of water vapor within the solar system and in star-forming regions made by Europe's Herschel infrared space telescope, Goldstein said.
"SOFIA has great advantages and handicaps due to being an airborne platform," Goldstein said. "It has made use of being able to fly to the Southern Hemisphere, with a very successful deployment to New Zealand last year. On the other hand, the amount of time available is limited, and you generally need a flight plan that takes you back to where you have taken off from, which limits the time you can observe a given source."
Based at NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center in Palmdale, Calif., the airborne telescope would be put in storage under the budget proposal unless NASA can find funding to keep the observatory flying.
The decision to cut SOFIA's funding ensured NASA's science budget could pay for extensions for the agency's existing missions, such as the Cassini spacecraft at Saturn and a fleet of rovers and orbiters at Mars, plus support development of future projects like the Wide-Field Infrared Space Telescope and a probe to Jupiter's moon Europa, according to Elizabeth Robinson, NASA's chief financial officer.
"In order to keep that balance, we're seeking ways with our current partner Germany and potential other partners to idnetify a path forwarad for SOFIA because we have greatly reduced funding there," Robinson told reporters Tuesday. "Unless we can find funds to continue operting SOFIA, NASA plans to place the aircraft in storage in 2015."
"I understand there are great financial pressures on the federal budget, and that is may be needed for NASA to make difficult choices among ongoing and future missions," Goldstein said. "It is not clear that the process for terminating SOFIA was made by careful weighing of the value of different options."
SOFIA is a joint project between NASA and DLR, the German space agency. It follows another flying astronomy platform, the Kuiper Airborne Observatory, which flew from 1974 to 1995 aboard a C-141 military transport plane.
Andreas Schutz, a DLR spokesperson, said Germany's contribution is about 20 percent of SOFIA's annual operating budget. German officials are working closely with NASA to find a solution to continue flying the observatory, Schutz said.
"This contribution takes place 'in kind' with personnel and parts and material," Schutz said. "In return, scientists from German research institutions use 20 percent of SOFIA's yearly research hours."
Paul Hertz, director NASA's astrophysics division, cited SOFIA's high operating costs as a reason for the budget cut. With pilots, fuel and maintenance for the one-of-a-kind aircraft and telescope, SOFIA costs more to operate than any other NASA astrophysics mission except the Hubble Space Telescope.
In a presentation this week to the National Research Council's Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics, Hertz said NASA is not "throwing away" its investment in SOFIA because the airplane would be kept in storage in case the agency can afford the project in future years.
NASA Begins Search for Potential SOFIA Partners
NASA issued a Request for Information (RFI) Monday soliciting potential partners interested in using the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) aircraft for scientific investigations or for other potential uses.
NASA's Fiscal Year 2015 budget request to Congress calls for SOFIA to be placed in storage next year unless the agency's contribution to the project can be replaced.
Various partnership levels will be considered. Partnerships can range from joining as a major partner to securing flights on a night-by-night basis. Costs are estimated at approximately $1 million per night for a dedicated mission. Due to the current budget situation, partnership arrangements would be initiated immediately in order to be in place prior to Oct. 1. Potential partners are invited to submit their interest or questions in writing as soon as possible, but prior to May 1.
The SOFIA team will conduct an Industry Day April 11 at NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center Bldg. 703 in Palmdale, Calif., to provide detailed information to potential partners and the media. Representatives can meet with the SOFIA program staff and take a tour of the aircraft. A number of briefings will be given on SOFIA's science program, the aircraft, its operational and life-cycle costs, as well as potential partnership mechanisms.
Parties interested in participating in the SOFIA Industry Day are requested to make reservations by contacting Beth Hagenauer at 661-276-7960 or firstname.lastname@example.org by noon PDT on April 9 to reserve a space and learn of security requirements.
SOFIA is the world's largest airborne astronomical observatory, complementing NASA's space telescopes, as well as major Earth-based telescopes. It features a German-built far-infrared telescope with an effective diameter of 100-inches (2.5 meters). The telescope weighs 19 tons (38,000 lb.) and is mounted in the rear fuselage of a highly modified Boeing 747SP aircraft.
Flying at altitudes of between 39,000 to 45,000 feet (12 – 14 kilometers) and above 99 percent of the water vapor in the atmosphere, SOFIA facilitates observations that are unobtainable from telescopes on the ground. Because SOFIA can fly virtually anywhere in the world, change instruments between flights, and implement new capabilities, it provides greater adaptability than any space-based telescope.
SOFIA is a joint program of NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR - Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt). The program is managed and the aircraft is based at Armstrong Flight Research Center. NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., manages SOFIA science and mission operations in cooperation with the Universities Space Research Association in Columbia, Md., and the Deutsches SOFIA Institute in Stuttgart, Germany.
This is not a request for proposal or formal procurement and therefore is not a solicitation. This notice is not to be construed as a commitment by the government to issue an invitation for bid, request for proposal, request for quote, or contract.