SOFIA argues for the continuation of operations

Officials at the NASA airborne observatory replied to a stinging rebuke in the most recent astrophysics decadal report by saying that the facility, which is set to be phased out, is critical to the agency’s overall science mission. Margaret Meixner, who works as the director in charge of the science mission operations for Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), stated in a virtual town hall meeting on January 10 that the program’s scientific productivity was growing and that it acted as a “stepping stone” for future space missions.

“For the next decade, SOFIA is the only far-infrared observatory.  SOFIA will assist the astronomical community to prepare for Astro2020’s ambitious future, both scientifically and technologically,” she said. Astro2020 refers to the most recent astrophysics decadal survey, which was released in November. Several huge space observatories, such as a far-infrared space telescope built on a proposal dubbed the Origins Space Telescope created in aid of the decadal survey, were advocated in that report.

The decadal survey, on the other hand, was harshly critical of SOFIA, urging that NASA cancel the program. “The survey committee has substantial fears regarding SOFIA, given the high cost and moderate scientific productivity,” according to the report, which also concluded that “there is no direction by which SOFIA can substantially increase its scientific outcome or significance to a degree which is comparable with its cost.”

SOFIA was previously slated for cancellation in NASA’s fiscal year 2022 budget plan, which was announced early last year. The House restored funds for SOFIA in its form of a spending package, while the Senate version was mute on the issue. Congress has yet to enact a final budget plan for NASA or even any other federal agency for the fiscal year 2022.

Despite not explicitly addressing the proposed SOFIA cancellation, Meixner defended the program’s scientific importance and performance. SOFIA, she said, could fulfill a third of the decadal survey’s scientific priorities while also teaching future instrument makers and astronomers “who will conceive, create, and operate far-infrared space observatories detailed in the Astro2020 study.”

“SOFIA’s efficiency and scientific effectiveness are on the right track for SOFIA to realize its full scientific potential,” she said, indicating that yearly publication rates for SOFIA-related research have increased twice in the last three years, a remark that appeared to respond to criticism in Astro2020 regarding the program’s “modest scientific productivity.”

“The Astro2020 criticisms on SOFIA are centered on data from before March 2020,” she argued, ignoring subsequent performance gains. Cycle 10 is the next set of observations planned by SOFIA, with proposals due by the end of this month. According to Meixner, the amount of time spent observing in Cycle 10 is going to be 50 percent higher than it was in Cycle 6 a few years ago.

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