Farewell to a little-known aircraft that turned into a scientific wonder


NASA has retired its Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), after eight years of operations.  Data from its missions will continue to be analyzed for years to come.

From the start of its development in 1996, SOFIA required engineering ingenuity. A Boeing 747SP jetliner had to be modified to carry the 38,000-pound, 100-inch (more than 17,000-kilogram, 2.5-meter) telescope provided by NASA’s partner on the SOFIA mission, the German Space Agency at DLR.

Engineers at Ames developed a garage door-like mechanism that rolled up to let the telescope observe the skies. In that configuration, it was “one of the largest open ports ever flown on an aircraft,” said Paul Fusco, a NASA engineer, now retired, who helped design the door system, “and the largest certified to fly at all altitudes and speeds with the door open. It was a really thrilling aviation innovation.”

The mission’s pilots couldn’t even feel when the door was open. And the stability of the telescope itself was equivalent to keeping a laser pointer steady on a penny from 10 miles away. SOFIA had achieved a smooth flight and a steady gaze.

And that was only the beginning. By 2014, the observatory had reached its full operational capability, and for eight years SOFIA helped astronomers around the world use infrared light to study an impressive array of cosmic events and objects invisible to other telescopes. 

Magnetic fields observed by SOFIA in the galaxy Centaurus A

“SOFIA’s unique scientific achievements were the result of the ingenuity of the incredible international community that grew up around the mission,” said Alessandra Roy, SOFIA project scientist for the German Space Agency, “which was only made possible by the collaboration of NASA and DLR.”

There’s more at the link.

That’s pretty amazing technology.  The results of SOFIA’s missions were spectacular, both from a scientific and a photographic perspective.  You’ll find many of the images here, and they’re well worth viewing.  They’re every bit as spectacular as those from the Hubble or James Webb space telescopes, taken as they were above the stratosphere.

Congratulations to NASA on a really productive and fruitful scientific mission.  I’d call that taxpayer money well spent.



  1. Interesting bird, and interesting capability! 🙂 And they flew with plenty of cold weather gear and were well buckled in!!!

  2. These days I judge the productivity of science missions by the imagery produced and how cool they look as the desktop background on my monitor. Just saying.

  3. It is good for us every so often to regain our perspective on who God really is. We tend to get lost in the weeds because we are weighed down with the worries of this life on Earth.
    The galaxy Centaurus A, is about 160,000 light years -or about 10,000,000 years away from Earth. It is a separate distinct galaxy -not in our Milky Way galaxy or the Solar System. And our God created it out of nothing.
    He is greater than the unknown vastness of the universe.
    This is the God of our Bible- the One that foreknew us and wrote our names in His Book of Life; the God who knows how many hairs are on each person's head; the One who formed us in the womb, and loves us enough to take on the form of humanity, suffered and shed His blood for our redemption, and was raised from the dead to give us who believe he gift of eternal life with Him; the God who promised He would never forsake us; the One who hung the stars and uses the heavens as His footstool.
    He is greater than anything we face in this life- any disease, suffering, or grief. He is the One we are waiting for to come and take us home.
    This is how big our God is.

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