WASHINGTON — NASA has formally begun its search for deep-pocketed partners ready to pony up to keep the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) flying beyond this year.

A Request for Information posted March 31 on the agency’s procurement website seeks input from potential partners interested in using the telescope-equipped 747SP aircraft for “scientific investigations or other potential uses.”

“Various partnership levels will be considered,” NASA says in the notice. “Partnerships can range from joining as a major partner to securing flights on a night-by-night basis. Costs are estimated at approximately $1 million per night for a dedicated mission.”

NASA’s 2015 budget plan calls for grounding SOFIA later this year in preparation for putting the $1 billion observatory into storage sometime next year. NASA’s international partner on the program, the German space agency DLR, has said it cannot afford to pick up NASA’s roughly $85 million share of SOFIA’s annual operating costs. 

NASA astrophysics officials recently warned that some of SOFIA’s 2014 budget might have to be put toward closeout activities, a scenario that threatens to reduce the observatory’s remaining flight hours. The $12 million NASA is seeking for SOFIA for 2015, these officials say, is not enough to meet next year’s deadline for shutting down the program — unless the agency gets a head start this year.

NASA’s sense of urgency comes through in the March 30 solicitation.

“Due to the current budget situation, partnership arrangements would be initiated immediately in order to be in place prior to Oct. 1,” it says. “Potential partners are invited to submit their interest or questions in writing as soon as possible, but prior to May 1.”  

An industry day is planned for April 11 at NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, Calif. Potential partners and members of the media will have a chance to meet with SOFIA staff and tour the aircraft.


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Brian Berger is editor in chief of SpaceNews.com and the SpaceNews magazine. He joined SpaceNews.com in 1998, spending his first decade with the publication covering NASA. He was named senior staff writer in 2004, a position he held...