Congress, NASA

SOFIA feeling “very hopeful” about future

Three months after the White House’s budget proposal appeared to spell doom for NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA)—a funding cut that would have likely required mothballing the telescope in 2015—project officials are optimistic enough about the observatory’s future that they are moving ahead with plans for future observation cycles and maintenance of the aircraft.

“The situation seems to have turned around, and we’re very hopeful right now,” said Erick Young, Science Mission Operations Director for SOFIA, in a town hall meeting about the observatory at the American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting in Boston Tuesday evening. That optimism was based, at that time, on the $70 million included for SOFIA in the Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) appropriations bill the House passed last week. Since Tuesday’s town hall meeting, Senate appropriators have provided $87 million—effectively the same as 2014—for SOFIA in its fiscal year 2015 CJS spending bill.

Young credited “advocacy from those outside the federal government” for the turnaround in SOFIA’s fortunes in the last three months, as well as an increase in science funding overall for NASA in the Congressional bills. “A very importart part of the message is that SOFIA is benefitting because science overall is getting increased in the Congressional actions,” he said. (The unstated alternative, of course, would be SOFIA getting an increase at the expense of other science programs.)

Young said that with the increasing confidence that SOFIA will be funded for 2015, the program is moving ahead with long-term plans observatory. That includes a scheduled “heavy maintenance” for the 747 aircraft in Germany, scheduled to begin at the end of June. A call for proposals for “Cycle 3″ of SOFIA observations, which will run from March 2015 to January 2016, remains underway, with proposals due next month.

12 comments to SOFIA feeling “very hopeful” about future

  • James

    Someone is going to get screwed in Astrophysics.

    Astrophysics is getting $100M more. Good. But SOFIA ($75M) and WFIRST ($42M) bump ups more than gobble that up. Bad

    So, Astrophysics will probably have to delay an upcoming SMEX AO, or , how ironic, end mission ops on some other science mission earlier than planned

    Way to go SOFIA lobbyist “advocacy from those outside the federal government”.

  • Hiram

    “advocacy from those outside the federal government” = USRA

    Now, it’s silly to say that funding SOFIA delays upcoming mission AOs. SOFIA is, in itself, *many* missions, with new focal plane instruments starting to come on line regularly. Much like the way we used to look at HST. A new instrument represents a new mission with new scientific capability.

    That being the case, SOFIA still has a lot to prove before the Senior Review in which it will be evaluated.

    • James

      I’m not knocking SOFIA Science, or the platform (747)from which they do their many missions.

      I am wondering how Astrophysics is going to make up for the short fall.

  • Dark Blue Nine

    Sure, let’s blow another $70-90 million per year on the lowest priority from the astronomy decadal while JWST eats astrophysics’ and planetary’s lunch.

    I mean, it’s not like we don’t already have balloons, Black Brants, and now reusable suborbital rockets coming online to do suborbital astronomy.

    I mean, it’s not like SOFIA has already cost as much as a top-priority flagship space telescope to conduct lowest-priority, suborbital observations.

    I mean, it’s not like SOFIA can only conduct a couple or few observation sessions a week for a few hours each versus a space telescope that takes data practically round-the-clock.

    I mean, it’s not like SOFIA’s observing sessions are getting cut short due to technical issues with the fragile aircraft’s botched wiring.

    I mean, it’s not like SOFIA is going to be down for another year just as we’re adding this money.

    Dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb…

    • Hiram

      “Sure, let’s blow another $70-90 million per year on the lowest priority from the astronomy decadal while JWST eats astrophysics’ and planetary’s lunch.”

      You ought to do some reading before preaching. SOFIA was a top priority for the 1990 Astronomy Decadal Survey. It was not considered in the 2000 and 2010 Decadal Surveys because it was already in development. Sorry, but in no way shape or form does that translate to “lowest priority”. Who exactly are you speaking for? References, please?

      “it’s not like we don’t already have balloons, Black Brants, and now reusable suborbital rockets coming online to do suborbital astronomy.”

      Let me know when you can fit a 2.5m telescope and a mammoth focal plane spectrometer in a Black Brant, and keep it in the stratosphere for eight hours, wouldja?

      “it’s not like SOFIA has already cost as much as a top-priority flagship space telescope to conduct lowest-priority, suborbital observations”

      See above, above priorities. You just don’t give up, do you. Yes, it has cost a lot, but it has not started regular operation yet. JWST has already cost VASTLY more than SOFIA, but won’t do anything for at least five years.

      “it’s not like SOFIA can only conduct a couple or few observation sessions a week for a few hours each versus a space telescope that takes data practically round-the-clock”

      Yes, and it’s not like there is any space telescope that is doing what SOFIA is doing. So in a few observation sessions per week, SOFIA accomplishes VASTLY more than what could be accomplished otherwise. The next large far infrared space telescope will be decades from now. Dream on.

      “it’s not like SOFIA’s observing sessions are getting cut short due to technical issues with the fragile aircraft’s botched wiring.”

      Botched wiring? Where do you get that? That’s just made up out of whole cloth. SOFIA is using an old airframe, and as a commercial carrier, needs regular standard maintenance. The archaic cockpit controls are, I believe, being replaced with modern generation controls. This is all standard maintenance and checks.

      Please take your uninformed blather elsewhere. I mean, it’s not like you have a clue.

  • amightywind

    Eventually these bottom of the barrel missions have to be ended. You can’t run all of NASA’s programs in perpetuity. We need to make room for a new age of exploration.

    • Hiram

      Another totally clueless post. SOFIA hasn’t started full operation yet, so “perpetuity” has yet to even start for this mission. The new age of exploration will happen when it starts fully operating. Yes, it seems like it has been being developed “in perpetuity”, but that’s different. As to “bottom of the barrel”, your barrel is different than that of the science community. Know where SLS is in my barrel? Yes, we all have our barrels.

      Look, I don’t want to come across as a total defender of SOFIA. That mission has been an embarrassment in mission development, and NASA and the contractors ought to be ashamed of themselves for letting that happen. But let’s at least try to have our head screwed on straight when we comment about it.

  • Dark Blue Nine

    “SOFIA was a top priority for the 1990 Astronomy Decadal Survey.”

    Bullcrap lie. SOFIA was third “Moderate Program” initiative and listed eighth overall in the Bahcall report. And that meager ranking was predicated on:

    1) concurrent and complementary operations with SIRTF’s (now Spitzer’s) prime mission (the actual top priority in Bahcall), and

    2) SOFIA costs coming in at ~$230M.

    SOFIA;s fubar development has missed Spitzer’s prime mission schedule by years and is pushing a total nearly ten-fold the original estimate.

    Worse, most of SOFIA’s science was scooped by Herschel with much greater sensitivity, it’s lost half of its instruments to overruns, and the limited observations that are left cost nearly as much per hour as HST — NASA’s most expensive telescope to operate.

    SOFIA is a project that should have been cancelled years ago.

    “You ought to do some reading before preaching.”

    And you ought to practice what you preach.

    Try reading and comprehending a reference before you use it. The NRC even provides executive summaries at the front of its reports, for crissakes.

    “It was not considered in the 2000 and 2010 Decadal Surveys because it was already in development.”

    I never said it was. But the astrophysics community regrets not reconsidering SOFIA during those surveys:

    “But the key problem with SOFIA lies in astronomers’ past inability to rank it alongside their other priorities and decide appropriately on its fate. Because it was already a mission under development, SOFIA escaped the prioritizing scrutiny of the most recent decadal reviews of astronomy. The lack of intermediate reviews minimized the ability to bring the project to a halt, as many would now argue should have happened.”

    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v466/n7305/full/466413a.html

    “Let me know when you can fit a 2.5m telescope and a mammoth focal plane spectrometer in a Black Brant”

    This has to be the world’s stupidest strawman. We’ve been putting 2m collecting areas on balloons (not sounding rockets, duh) since 2003.

    “and keep it in the stratosphere for eight hours, wouldja?”

    Balloons stay aloft for days (not hours) at altitudes more than 4x what SOFIA can access.

    “Yes, it has cost a lot, but it has not started regular operation yet.”

    Read what you wrote in the sentence above, and think about it for a minute.

    It should tell you something.

    “JWST has already cost VASTLY more than SOFIA”

    The fact that you have to use JWST, the worst-managed space science project in history, to create a worse comparison for SOFIA should also tell you something.

    Just because the “F+” student is beating the “F-” student doesn’t mean that either of them should be given billions of taxpayer dollars.

    “but won’t do anything for at least five years.”

    SOFIA also “won’t do anything” for at least another year, and it’s a decade older in terms of survey development approvals than JWST.

    “Yes, and it’s not like there is any space telescope that is doing what SOFIA is doing… The next large far infrared space telescope…”

    Cripes… Herschel just retired last year and Akari only two years before that; the two shortest wavelengths on Spitzer’s main camera are still going, IPAC is still calibrating data from ISO, balloons offer a proven route for emerging far-IR capabilities, and there’s gawd-only-knows-how-many sub-mm ground-based telescopes nearby on the spectrum around the world.

    Every observational astrophysicist thinks that their wavelength is the most important by far, but get a grip. The far-IR world doesn’t rest on SOFIA’s shoulders.

    “Botched wiring? Where do you get that?”

    GAO reports and every other article on SOFIA, among others:

    “The project has also had to upgrade the aircraft’s avionics and electrical wiring, which has taken longer than originally planned. According to officials, the project is updating the aircraft’s avionics from the 1970s to current technology. Technical issues have persisted during the upgrade process and are causing delays.”

    “In addition, the aircraft required some electrical rewiring due to undersized wiring that had to be replaced with a larger gauge wire in order to avoid unacceptable voltage drops. The new electrical wiring was designed and fabricated in-house and is complex — it has over 10,000 connection points — and as a result has contributed to the project’s schedule delays.

    http://www.gao.gov/assets/660/653866.pdf

    “But soon after she pointed the telescope at the comet, a circuit-breaker failed. It could not be replaced until the plane landed. Instead of nearly an hour observing the comet, Wooden got just a few minutes.”

    “the glitch was typical of those that have plagued the complex flying observatory”

    “Another experienced problems with its power supply and the fasteners used to attach it in the tele­scope cavity.”

    http://www.nature.com/news/sofia-irons-out-technical-kinks-1.14769

    “That’s just made up out of whole cloth.”

    Yeah, I’m just imagining those official independent government reports and science journal news articles.

    Here’s a free piece of advice, you crazy, ignorant, insulting kid: Try this new-fangled thing called an internet search BEFORE you accuse someone else of lying.

    “You just don’t give up, do you.

    I mean, it’s not like you have a clue.

    Please take your uninformed blather elsewhere.”

    Please spare me your lame ad hominem attacks, feigned outrage, and ignorance.

    • Hiram

      “SOFIA was third “Moderate Program” initiative and listed eighth overall in the Bahcall report.”

      SOFIA was, in the 1991 Decadal Report the highest priority moderate scale program that was for new space instrumentation. It wasn’t THE top priority, but A top priority. Pretty high up there. That’s on a list of eleven moderate scale programs. Yes, I know how to read.

      You’re exactly right about predicted costs. Let’s see, where would that put JWST and MSL, whose real costs are *enormously* over predicted costs? Of course, many are saying that the plug should have been pulled on JWST long ago. JWST is taking down NASA astrophysics. SOFIA is not. NASA missions over predicted cost? Is the sky blue?

      “SOFIA;s fubar development has missed Spitzer’s prime mission schedule by years’

      The fact that SOFIA missed out on complementing Spitzer and preparing for Herschel was indeed unfortunate, but SOFIA was sold as a 20-year mission, going way beyond those space observatories. That was understood from the beginning. So let’s not cherrypick rationale to complain about.

      “But the astrophysics community regrets not reconsidering SOFIA during those surveys”

      That point was made in a Nature editorial that was understood by many in the community to be unusually critical. It is reaching a bit to say that editorial represented any kind of community consensus.

      “This has to be the world’s stupidest strawman. We’ve been putting 2m collecting areas on balloons (not sounding rockets, duh) since 2003.” “Balloons stay aloft for days (not hours) at altitudes more than 4x what SOFIA can access.”

      Well, you brought up that stupid strawman, not me. Also, telescopes with the short wavelength accuracy of SOFIA aren’t on balloons. These are submillimeter telescopes, and their surface accuracy is an order of magnitude poorer, making their mass much smaller. Those telescopes could never hold the instrument complement that SOFIA can, and are enormously compromised in power systems and data rate. Retrieval of valuable instruments is something you have to cross your fingers about. Now, time-on-target is, in the case of cutting edge instrumentation, a recognized poor metric. A balloon that stays aloft for days has instruments that human engineers can’t touch for days. You (again) cross your fingers and let it go and, more likely, you make safer, lower-risk, lower-payoff choices for the instrument complement when you do.

      “The project has also had to upgrade the aircraft’s avionics and electrical wiring”

      But it wasn’t a “botched” wiring job. That’s your word, not anyone elses. It was the original avionics and wiring that came with the old commercial 747 that SOFIA bought for a low cost, and it needed to be upgraded to meet the task at hand. That turned out to be a bigger job than was planned. You need to go back and read that well known GAO report more carefully. It said, by the way, that “Despite these delays, officials indicate that the SOFIA is on track to meet full operational capability in late 2013.” Which it did. Yes, Boeing really botched that 747 wiring when it built the plane, stupidly not realizing that it would one day be used for an airborne observatory.

      “the glitch was typical of those that have plagued the complex flying observatory”

      At that time, it was a complex flying PROTO-observatory. SOFIA managers made the hard decision several years ago to start doing science BEFORE the facility was complete. That’s an accepted, smart strategy for establishing what facility engineering and development needs to be done in order to commission the facility as fully functional. Those astronomers who used it in that early phase agreed to what is called “shared risk” operation, where loss of observing time is indeed, quite “typical”. Reporters on the space-based scene simply don’t understand shared risk operation, which is common for ground-based facility development but wholly foreign to space-based instrumentation. Evidently many others don’t as well.

      Of course, that’s precisely the advantage that SOFIA offers. No other SMD space mission allows for the opportunity to “try it out early, see what doesn’t work, and fix it”. That’s where the glitches that plague you actually teach you a lot. So you can thumb your nose at that opportunity, but I think it’s a pretty potent one.

      My outrage, if you want to call it that, is hardly “feigned”. This is a project that has had some very hard times, and deserves a careful assessment of productivity and value. That’s what the Senior Review, which SOFIA will go through in a year or two, is all about. There are certainly some big questions about whether SOFIA will actually live up to what it was intended to achieve, but casual and misleading arguments don’t contribute to that assessment.

  • common sense

    What’s killing SOFIA might you ask?

    “Costs are estimated at approximately $1 million per night for a dedicated mission.”

    http://www.nasa.gov/press/2014/april/nasa-begins-search-for-potential-sofia-partners/#.U5YRsl6999U

    Take $250K for the 747 for 10 hours or so and this is very, very generous.

    $750K per night (!) for? For what? 3 FTE or so for a year in 1 night?

    I dunno. Seems high.

  • vulture4

    There are always different points of view, and once a system is nearly working it’s natural to want to keep pushing it.

    But ultimately we have to take a longer view. If our goal is to learn about the universe on a fixed budget we have to decide where an investment now will pay off later. What are the alternative platforms for observation? What are the operating costs and capabilities of each? We can’t become so committed to a particular strategy or system that we can’t be objective.

    In the long run it appears to me that space-based telescopes have substantial advantages in both duty cycle and operating cost over the 747-based concept. The primary obstacles have always been cost of launch and impracticality of servicing. Back in the 70′s the ISS was seen as a tool to solve these problems, a site for final assembly and checkout. The lack of the “space tug”, once a key part of the Space Transportation System, has been an obstacle. The solar-electric stage might fill this niche.

    I continue to feel that the availability of power, cooling capacity, directional stabilization, datalinks, and human servicing on the ISS make it a viable platform for astronomy at reasonable cost, and the availability of active cooling and fluid servicing outweighs the suboptimal thermal environment for IR astronomy. What data that has been collected shows the external environment around the ISS to be remarkably free of contamination, and of course the original plan for co-orbiting astronomy satellites is still available if this proves to be a problem. A small-aperture scope mounted on the ISS would tell us a lot about whether this approach is viable at modest cost.

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