The Boeing 747SP, registration N747NA, owned by NASA and modified to carry a reflecting telescope for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) mission, was damaged in New Zealand earlier this week. This iconic aircraft is currently grounded and receiving maintenance.
NASA reported that on Monday, July 18, the SOFIA Boeing 747SP was damaged by a storm that affected the area around Christchurch International Airport (CHC) in New Zealand.
During the severe weather event, high winds caused the stairs outside the aircraft to shift, causing light damage to the front of the plane, as well as the stairs themselves.
While there were no injuries due to this incident, NASA is currently assessing the damage to the aircraft and expecting to receive new stairs.
The SOFIA team determined the needed repairs will take at least three weeks. NASA sent the Boeing 747SP to New Zealand to better observe celestial objects in the Southern Hemisphere. This is supposed to be SOFIA’s last mission in the Southern Hemisphere before NASA and its partners at the German Space Agency at the Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR) put an end to the program after more than a decade.
What happens to SOFIA’s last mission abroad?
Following the incident, SOFIA’s team released a statement saying it is adjusting its science observation plans and canceling the remainder of its Southern Hemisphere deployment.
Because the needed repairs on the ‘Queen of the Skies’ (or shall we say the Universe?) will take at least three weeks, it has eliminated the possibility of conducting the remaining science observation flights that were planned from New Zealand through August 7.
SOFIA arrived in New Zealand on June 18 and had a successful and productive month of science flights.
The aircraft will return to its usual base of operations in Palmdale, California, and resume science flights after repairs are complete.
During its deployment, SOFIA observed and studied a wide range of celestial objects and phenomena, like cosmic magnetic fields, the structure of the Milky Way, and the origin of cosmic rays. The team also participated in multiple outreach events and shared information with students, youth groups, museum attendees, and aerospace industry members.
SOFIA will stop flying this year. Photo: NASA/SOFIA/Waynne Williams.
The end of the SOFIA mission
Not many aircraft are currently as iconic as NASA’s Boeing 747. This plane was modified to carry a 2.7-meter reflecting telescope. It flies into the stratosphere at 38,000-45,000 feet, putting SOFIA above 99% of Earth’s infrared-blocking atmosphere, which allows astronomers to study the solar system and beyond in ways that are impossible with ground-based telescopes.
Nonetheless, the SOFIA mission is set to end in October 2022. While doing the National Academies’ Decadal Survey on Astronomy and Astrophysics in 2020, NASA evaluated SOFIA and concluded that its science productivity does not justify its operating costs. Moreover, SOFIA’s capabilities do not significantly overlap with the science priorities the Decadal Survey has identified for the next decade and beyond.
Therefore, the Decadal Survey recommended NASA end the SOFIA mission. NASA and DLR accepted the recommendation.
Last month, the Committee of Appropriations from the United States House of Representatives announced it would provide no less than US$30 million for SOFIA to ensure an orderly close-out of the mission. It also directed NASA to report its strategy “to mitigate the science and data collection that will no longer be produced by SOFIA, including any scientific capability gaps and any other information that normally would be considered as part of a senior review.”
Have you ever seen NASA’s SOFIA Boeing 747SP up close? Where was it? What should NASA do with the aircraft once it is retired? Let us know in the comments below.