SOFIA is a 747SP aircraft equipped with a 2.5-meter infrared telescope. Credit: NASA

BOSTON — NASA and the German Aerospace Center, DLR, are moving ahead with development of a pair of second-generation instruments for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), which currently does not have funding beyond Sept. 30, 2014.

NASA on May 29 formally declared the airborne observatory fully operational, following a three-year commissioning phase of its science instruments and a refurbishment of the Boeing 747SP aircraft that carries the telescope, Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s Astrophysics Division, said at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Boston June 1-5.

After spending $1.25 billion to develop SOFIA, a partnership of NASA and the German space agency, the Obama administration has balked at its $87 million annual operating cost and suggests putting the telescope in storage.

“All the big money has been spent. Now all we have to do is go get science,” SOFIA program spokesman Nicholas Veronico, with NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, told SpaceNews.

The project may fare better in Congress. The House of Representatives in May approved adding $70 million to NASA’s 2015 spending plan for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 for SOFIA operations.

“We are waiting to see whether the Senate … also directs NASA to continue spending on SOFIA,” Hertz said during an American Astronomical Society Town Hall meeting on June 2. 

The next day, a Senate appropriations panel included $87 million in a spending bill that must still be approved by the full Senate and reconciled with the House bill before heading to President Barack Obama’s desk. 

Until a budget is signed, “it’s business as usual with us,” Veronico added.

That includes proceeding with two second-generation instruments: the U.S.-built High-resolution Airborne Wideband Camera-Plus, which is a far-infrared camera that can detect polarized light; and an upgrade to the German Receiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies spectrometer.

“We’re working closely with DLR … to make sure that during the current year we continue to operate SOFIA and to maintain the observatory so that we can operate next year should we receive the appropriations required to do so,” Hertz said.


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