SOFIA’s Initial Science Flights Slip into Spring 2010

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  Space News Business

SOFIA’s Initial Science Flights Slip into Spring 2010

By BECKY IANNOTTA
Space News Staff Writer
posted: 19 May 2009
02:47 pm ET






WASHINGTON
— The initial science flight of a telescope-equipped 747 jetliner now undergoing testing has been pushed back until spring 2010.

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) has been in development for more than a decade. Equipped with a 2.5-meter infrared telescope supplied by the
German
Aerospace
Center
, DLR, the heavily-modified 747SP is designed to fly high above the clouds to gain glimpses of the universe not invisible to larger ground-based telescopes.

Previously scheduled to start making some limited initial science runs later this year,
SOFIA
must first prove that it can safely fly with its roughly 4-meter-tall retractable door open before NASA starts taking astronomers aloft. The incremental series of open-door flight tests are now expected to being in August and take about a year to complete. The delay was caused in part by late delivery of the software and hardware needed to control the cavity door, NASA spokesman J.D. Harrington said.

While initial science operations have been delayed into 2010, Jon Morse, NASA’s astrophysics division director, said
SOFIA
‘s
telescope should make its so-called first light observation this fall, shortly after the open door tests begin.

Additional science observations will be folded into
SOFIA
‘s
flight plans as the aircraft is cleared to retract its door at increasing altitudes.
SOFIA
is expected to reach full operational capability in 2014, with four
U.S.
instruments and two German instruments taken aloft for flights averaging six to eight hours each, according to NASA budget documents released April 7.
SOFIA
is expected to average about 960 science hours per year once it reaches its full capability.

Getting
SOFIA
ready for full-time science operations is now expected to cost just over $1 billion, a 17-percent increase over a 2007 estimate.

SOFIA
‘s
projected life cycle costs – a figure that includes development plus 20 years of operations – have increased to $2.96 billion. The $376.5 million increase over last year’s estimate is due to efforts to find an international partner to help pay for operations that have not panned out. Morse said NASA has not given up on finding a partner to defray the cost of flying
SOFIA
but wanted to ensure money was in the budget to cover program costs.

“It was too risky from a planning standpoint to have this budget decrease in the out years,” he said. “If we wind up making a partnership, we won’t feel like we either have to do that or jeopardize the program.”

As of this year, NASA has spent about $660 million on
SOFIA
– more than double the $265 million NASA expected to spend when it started the program in 1995.

In 2006, NASA considered canceling
SOFIA
because of ongoing budget and technical concerns. In the end, flight testing responsibility for the aircraft was moved from
Ames
Research
Center
in
Mountain View
,
Calif.
, to
Dryden
Flight
Research
Center
in Edwards,
Calif.

SOFIA
is one of the few line items in NASA’s astrophysics division that would receive an increase under President BarackObama’s 2010 budget proposal. Overall, the astrophysics budget would remain flat at about $1.1 billion per year through 2014 – just slightly more than proposed by former President George W. Bush in his 2009 budget proposal.

With no top line increase, other astrophysics programs, including those geared toward finding planets outside the solar system and probing the fundamental physics of the universe, will be squeezed to cover SOFIA’s increased costs and a now nearly $5 billion price tag for the James Webb Space Telescope, about $2 billion of which already has been spent. Last year, as Webb was transitioning from its lengthy formulation period into a development phase expected to culminate with a June 2014 launch, NASA officials pegged the total cost of building and operating the space telescope at around $4.5 billion.

Newer figures included in NASA’s 2010 budget request predict Webb will cost $4.9 billion by the time the telescope reaches the end of its five-year mission.

Morse said the $4.9 billion figure reflects the more conservative budget posture the agency adopted under former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin to guard against disruptive cost and schedule overruns.

Morse said Webb continues to plug along on time and within budget.

“The project overall has been perfect in its schedule and funding guidelines,” Morse said. “Most of the money added in the out years has gone to reserves.”