Columbia, MD – The Universities Space Research Association (USRA) announced today that its teammate L-3 Communications Integrated Systems has completed all major physical modifications required for initial flight-testing of NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA).

SOFIA is a Boeing 747 extensively modified to carry a 50,000-pound, 2.5-meter infrared telescope provided by Germany. SOFIA will fly at altitudes up to 45,000 feet – above 99% of the Earth’s water vapor – to capture infrared images not possible by even the largest ground-based telescopes. NASA selected USRA in 1996 to develop and operate SOFIA to replace the .91-meter Kuiper Airborne Observatory, a C-141 that flew successfully for over 20 years. Since then, SOFIA has progressed steadily through key milestones: delivery of the German-built telescope in 2002; installation of the telescope into the aircraft in 2003; structural testing of the aircraft and initial ground-based testing of the telescope in 2004; and completion of the first-flight configuration of the NASA telescope cavity door in 2005.

Today’s announcement moves SOFIA into the final phase of the Heavy Maintenance Visit, final ground testing and FAA verifications. Initial flight tests are scheduled for the latter part of 2006, depending on funding. After flight testing and functional testing of the telescope and cavity door, SOFIA will be operated at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, CA.

Germany has been substantially involved in the SOFIA program for over 20 years. The German Aerospace Center – or DLR – funded and oversaw design and development of the SOFIA telescope by a team of German companies. In 2004, the DLR funded the University of Stuttgart to establish the German SOFIA Institute, which coordinates German participation in the program. SOFIA’s science staff already includes German researchers helping to move the program to its first science observations. In return for Germany’s considerable investment in SOFIA, 20% of SOFIA’s observing time will be for German astronomers.

SOFIA will provide an excellent platform for the study of black hole environments, galactic evolution, the chemical composition of interstellar gas clouds, complex organic molecules in space, and the formation of stars and solar systems. SOFIA will also provide a unique opportunity for educators to partner with scientists on research missions.

“The development phase of SOFIA is virtually complete,” said USRA President David Black. “We plan to start flight testing this year and once that is complete we can start flying science missions. That is when the program will begin to reap tangible benefits from this significant investment by NASA and the German government.”