Photo of the Week: Farewell, Sofia

Flying observatory ends historic scientific mission

By BlueSkyStaff

Published October 31, 2022

Read Time: 2 mins


This is not your typical Boeing 747.

NASA’s famous Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) has retired after flying its final mission, leaving a legacy of scientific achievement.

A partnership between NASA and the German Space Agency at DLR, SOFIA is an engineering marvel that has unlocked many unknowns of our universe, research that would not have been possible without its capabilities.

The highly modified Boeing 747SP was acquired by NASA in 1996 after previously flying for Pan Am. The aircraft was outfitted to carry a massive 2.5-meter, 38,000-pound telescope inside a cavity in its fuselage. In addition, a rear door was added that opens in flight, allowing the telescope to gaze up at the stars.

According to NASA, the telescope aboard SOFIA has the steadiness equivalent to pointing a laser at a penny 10 miles away.

Operating at nighttime and at altitudes between 38,000 and 45,000 feet, SOFIA flies above 99 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere, giving its infrared telescope a much clearer view into space than ground-based telescopes can achieve. Its quick-launch capability to anywhere in the world allowed SOFIA to capture the most time-sensitive solar events.

Over the course of its career, SOFIA has helped changed how scientists understand the universe. Some of its groundbreaking discoveries include water on the sunlit portion of the moon, the first type of molecule ever to form in the universe and how stars are born.

After completing its final mission Sept. 29, SOFIA made its last public appearance at the Aerospace Valley Airshow at Edwards Air Force Base in California. It arrived back from the show at its home base at the U.S Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California, where it will live until finding a permanent home for public display.

Ethan Minnich of Harrisburg was lucky enough to photograph SOFIA’s final flight arriving at Palmdale while on a trip to California. To capture the final chapter of SOFIA’s illustrious career, we’d say that trip out west was worth it.

Thanks for sharing, Ethan!

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