WASHINGTON — NASA might have to raid an international airborne astrophysics observatory’s remaining science budget just to pay the costs of canceling the mission, an agency official said here.

NASA proposed grounding the billion-dollar Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) as part of its 2015 budget request, requesting $12 million for the U.S. government budget year that begins Oct. 1 to close out the program.

SOFIA, a joint venture with the German Aerospace Center (DLR), costs NASA more than $80 million a year — a significant share of which goes toward the jet fuel needed to keep the telescope-equipped 747SP jetliner flying. DLR pays the equivalent of $20 million via barter arrangements.  

NASA faces a budget-driven Sept. 30, 2015 deadline for putting SOFIA into storage, according to NASA Astrophysics Division Director Paul Hertz.

Mothballing SOFIA by then will probably require NASA to tap into the $87.4 million budgeted this year for SOFIA science flights, because the agency “won’t be able to complete putting SOFIA into storage for $12 million if we don’t start until Oct. 1,” Hertz told the NASA Advisory Council’s astrophysics subcommittee here March 26. “That’s my expectation.”

Hertz will know more when a joint NASA-DLR working group completes an assessment of the SOFIA wind down. An initial report is expected April 4, with a final, more detailed report to follow April 25, Hertz said. 

Part of the working group’s task to determine whether anyone besides NASA and DLR — both of which have now said they are not interested in being SOFIA’s primary operating partner — is willing to swoop in and save the mission by picking up its roughly $80 million annual tab, and taking over science operations, Hertz told NASA Advisory Council members.

Given the possibility that closeout will begin this year, finding a white knight for the mission, if one exists, must “be a rapid activity,” Hertz said, 

SOFIA, with its German-built, 2.5-meter infrared telescope and modular science instruments, has already flown 25 science campaigns. However, NASA probably will not declare the observatory fully operational until April, Hertz said.

To use any portion of SOFIA’s 2014 budget for closeout, NASA will have to submit a reprogramming of funds request, known as an operating plan, to Congress. Legislators approved a 2014 budget for SOFIA with the understanding that it would be used for science operations, so any change likewise requires legislative buy-in, Hertz said. 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story attributed NASA’s Sept. 30, 2015 deadline for putting SOFIA into storage to the agency’s 2015 budget request. The deadline should have been attributed to NASA Astrophysics Division Director Paul Hertz’s March 26 presentation to the NASA Advisory Council’s astrophysics subcommittee. 

Follow Dan on Twitter: @Leone_SN


Germany Hasn’t Given Up on Persuading NASA To Keep SOFIA Flying

Cashed Strapped NASA Chose Cassini over SOFIA

Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...