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Congress moves to block SOFIA shutdown

Both legislative chambers instruct NASA to continue operating the flying observatory.

Senate appropriators have followed the House of Representatives in rejecting the Obama administration’s proposal to ground the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy. The German-made SOFIA telescope, mounted in a modified Boeing 747, flies above 99% of the atmosphere’s water vapor and can obtain IR images that are unachievable from the ground.

The House-passed appropriations bill that funds NASA included $70 million for SOFIA operations in fiscal 2015. The report accompanying the bill said that the amount should be sufficient to pay for the aircraft’s fixed costs and “a base level of scientific operations.” The telescope is producing good science and has not been proposed for termination by NASA’s internal or external scientific reviews, the report said.

The Senate version of the bill is reportedly out of committee and awaiting action by the full chamber. The bill report does not specify funding levels for SOFIA but says the committee disagrees with the program’s termination. The report added that such decisions should be made only after a “senior review that evaluates the relative scientific benefit and return from continued investment.”

In releasing its FY 2015 budget request in March, the administration said that unless a new partner could be found to help pay for it, SOFIA would be grounded in October. In April NASA released a request for information soliciting potential partners. Proposals could range from having a major partner join to paying for flights on a night-by-night basis. Costs are estimated at approximately $1 million per night for a dedicated mission, NASA said.

The observatory became fully operational only this month. “We have now formally completed the development phase of SOFIA and declared the observatory operational. That's the equivalent of a launch for a space mission," said Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, at a meeting of the American Astronomical Association on 2 June. Before that formal declaration, SOFIA had flown 14 times in 30 days for a total of 100 science mission hours.

Flights to commission the observatory's fifth instrument, the Field-Imaging Far-Infrared Line Spectrometer (FIFI-LS), were completed in April, and flights to commission SOFIA's sixth instrument, the Echelon-Cross Echelle Spectrograph (EXES), began later that month. In addition, development work is nearing completion on an American-built instrument, the High-Resolution Airborne Wideband Camera-Plus (HAWC+), a far-IR camera with capabilities for detecting polarized light. And upGREAT, a set of enhancements to the existing German Receiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies (GREAT) spectrometer, will further enhance that instrument's performance.

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