The future of NASA’s SOFIA airborne observatory is in doubt after the astrophysics decadal survey handed the program a vote of no confidence. NASA had advocated terminating the mission.
The final report of the astrophysics decadal survey, released Nov. 4, was harsh in its condemnation of Stratospheric Observatory for the Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a project that was recognized as a priority in the 1990 and 2000 decadal surveys. SOFIA is a 2.5-meter telescope installed in a retrofitted Boeing 747 airplane that allows it to conduct observations above most of the infrared-absorbing water vapor in the atmosphere. It began operations in 2014 after a long delay.
The survey found that SOFIA, which costs roughly $85 million a year to run, doesn’t produce science at a rate consistent with its cost, and is sometimes exceeded by far less expensive space missions.
According to the study, “the survey committee has considerable reservations about SOFIA, considering its high cost and poor scientific productivity.” SOFIA produced 178 scientific articles in its first 6 years of routine operations, which were mentioned 1,242 times in the other papers, according to the report. That’s significantly less than other ventures with comparable operating costs, such as the Hubble Space Telescope as well as Chandra X-Ray Observatory, or less expensive projects, such as the TESS exoplanet spacecraft. “SOFIA is still not scientifically productive or effective in relation to its cost over its lifetime.”
Concerns regarding cost versus scientific output are not new, prompting NASA to request two investigations in 2018 and 2019 on both research and operations. According to the research, this resulted in adjustments that raised the number of papers that were published each year by 50%.
Those findings, however, did not persuade the decadal survey. “The survey committee did not find evidence which SOFIA could, in fact, shift to a much more productive future,” the report claimed, describing current gains as “small” in scope and with little hope for future progress. “As a result, the survey committee discovered no way for SOFIA to considerably improve its scientific output or even relevance in a cost-effective manner.”
NASA’s operations should be phased out by 2023, according to the report, which is in line with the strategy provided to the decadal survey coordinating group. In the fiscal year 2021 budget proposal, NASA suggested cancelling SOFIA, only for Congress to fully finance the program in the last omnibus spending measure last December. In May, the government proposed abolishing SOFIA once more in its budget request for fiscal year 2022. In its budget documents, SOFIA said that “dramatic improvement in SOFIA’s scientific production is not expected.”