Science & Technology

NASA to shut down SOFIA telescope that found water on Moon

SOFIA also discovered the first molecule formed in the Universe 

By Rohini Krishnamurthy
Published: Tuesday 03 May 2022
NASA to shut down SOFIA telescope that found water on Moon Photo: NASA

The United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has decided to pull the plug on the world’s largest flying telescope that confirmed the presence of water on the Moon. 

The organisation announced April 28, 2022 it would shut down the operations of Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) mission by September 30, 2022. 

SOFIA is a 2.7-meter infrared telescope sitting inside a Boeing 747SP airplane, flying at an altitude of 38,000-45,000 feet above the surface. It's the second-most expensive astrophysics mission, according to the NASA’s Financial Year 2023 budget estimates report. The document mentioned a 2020 decadal survey report, which concluded that SOFIA’s science productivity did not justify its operating costs.

SOFIA is a collaboration between NASA and the German Space Agency (DLR). “SOFIA is globally unique and, with the start of regular operations in 2014, has been successfully used for scientific research during a total of approximately 800 flights,” Walther Pelzer, DLR Executive Board Member and Head of the German Space Agency at DLR, said in a statement.

Since its inception in 2014, SOFIA has been collecting data to understand star birth and death and the formation of new solar systems. It has also been keeping a close eye on planets, comets and asteroids in our solar system, nebulas and galaxies, celestial magnetic fields and black holes at the centre of galaxies, the US space agency said.

SOFIA was designed to observe cosmic objects in far-infrared wavelengths. This allows researchers to watch star formation by looking through huge, cold clouds of gas, according to NASA.

NASA’s decision to shut down SOFIA closely follows the White House's 2023 federal budget request released on 28 March 2022, which did not allocate money to SOFIA.

SOFIA’s annual operations Budget is the second-most expensive operating mission in Astrophysics, yet the science productivity of the mission is not commensurate with other large science missions,” NASA’s Financial Year 2023 budget estimates report read. It recommended that NASA pulls the plug on the project by 2023.

Operating at the cost of about $85 million per year, SOFIA has had to face cancellation attempts in the past, according to reports. The German Space Agency contributed 20 per cent of the costs.

Important discoveries

The project has generated 309 scientific studies, according to information on SOFIA’s website. In 2020, NASA announced that SOFIA discovered water molecules (H2O) on the sun-facing side of the Moon. 

The site is the Clavius Crater, located in the Moon’s southern hemisphere. The telescope’s data suggested that the site contained water in concentrations of 100 to 412 parts per million — roughly equivalent to a 12-ounce bottle [355 millilitres] of water, according to NASA.

India’s Chandrayaan-1 mission and NASA’s ground-based Infrared Telescope Facility found evidence of hydration in the sunnier regions, they couldn’t confirm whether hydrogen was in the form of H2O or OH, the report stated.

In 2019, SOFIA also discovered helium hydride — the first molecule formed in the Universe almost 14 billion years ago, the German space agency said.

“Many crucial processes in the history of the universe leave their signatures in the far-infrared and SOFIA is the only observatory that can probe this important wavelength range for the next decade,” Bhaswati Mookerjea, professor, department of astronomy and astrophysics, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, told Down to Earth. Mookerjea has published 12 paper using observations performed with SOFIA. 

“SOFIA is the only instrument after Herschel that has the capability of observing singly ionized carbon, which is now understood to be an important tracer of the molecular gas in the local universe,” the expert said, adding that shutting down the project is a huge loss to the community.

SOFIA also identified atmospheric circulation patterns in Jupiter, according to NASA. It also mapped the magnetic field within G47, one of Milky Way’s spiral arms. “Magnetic fields…can potentially set the rate at which stars form in a cloud,” said Ian Stephens, an astronomer at Worcester State University in Massachusetts, who was involved in the work. 

They can guide the flow of gas and affect the quantity and size of the densest pockets of gas that will eventually collapse to form stars, the expert added.

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