ORLANDO, Fla. – Officials at a NASA airborne observatory responded to a stinging reprimand in the latest Decadal survey of astrophysics, arguing that the facility it seeks to end is essential to the agency’s broader science program.
In a virtual town hall meeting on Jan. 10, Margaret Meixner, director of scientific mission operations at the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), said that the scientific productivity of the program that flies an infrared telescope on a Boeing 747 is improving and that it will be Served as a “stepping stone” for future space missions.
“SOFIA is just a far infrared observatory for the next decade. SOFIA will help prepare the astronomical community, both scientifically and technologically, for the ambitious future of Astro2020, ”she said.
Astro2020 is a reference to the latest decadal astrophysics survey published in November. That report recommended an ambitious set of large space observatories, including a far-infrared space telescope based on a concept called the Origins Space Telescope, which was developed to aid in decadal surveying.
However, the decadal poll sharply criticized SOFIA itself and recommended that NASA end the program. “The survey committee has significant concerns about SOFIA given its high costs and modest scientific productivity,” the report said, concluding that it “has not found a way in which SOFIA can significantly increase its scientific output or relevance to a degree that’s its cost. “
In its budget proposal for fiscal year 2022, published at the beginning of last year, NASA proposed that SOFIA be canceled. The House of Representatives restored funding for SOFIA in its version of an spending bill, while a version of the Senate remained silent about the program. Congress has yet to pass a final fiscal 2022 spending draft for NASA or another federal agency.
While Meixner did not directly address the planned termination of SOFIA, Meixner defended both the scientific relevance and the performance of the program. She argued that SOFIA could address a third of the scientific priorities discussed in the Decadal poll while training future astronomers and instrument developers “who will define, develop and use far-infrared space observatories described in the Astro2020 report”.
“SOFIA’s efficiency and scientific productivity are on track for SOFIA to realize its full scientific potential,” she said, noting that annual publication rates for research with SOFIA have doubled over the past three years, one comment, which apparently responds to the criticism in Astro2020. about the “modest scientific productivity” of the program.
“The Astro2020 comments on SOFIA are based on information from before March 2020,” she argued, missing the recent performance improvements.
SOFIA is planning a next round of observations, called Cycle 10, with proposals due by the end of this month. Meixner said the observation time in cycle 10 will be 50% longer than in cycle 6 a few years ago.
She argued that SOFIA should be seen as a complement to both balloon-based “suborbital” astrophysics projects and space missions. “Suborbitals like SOFIA are essential to the future science and technology we use in space missions,” she said. “SOFIA can be seen as a stepping stone between the balloon program and space missions.”
Despite the uncertainty about SOFIA’s future, Meixner said the program is preparing for the next Senior Review of Astrophysics, where NASA assesses missions that have reached the end of their primary lifespan to see if they are due to their cost and scientific nature Earnings deserve an extension. The upcoming senior review this year will be SOFIA’s first participation.
“We have a strong argument and we hope to deliver,” she said.