NASA’s iconic Boeing 747 carrying the world’s largest flying observatory completed its final flight. The Boeing 747SP, registered N747NA, belongs to Nasa and was modified to carry a reflecting telescope for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), from which he got his nickname.
SOFIA took off for the last time from NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Palmdale, Calif., to its new “forever home” at the Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona. The pilots departed at 8:31 this morning and performed a final overflight of the area, with a wing tilt, to thank all of the community members who supported and worked on SOFIA.
The aircraft landed in Tucson at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base this afternoon at 11:33 a.m. local time and will now undergo final preparations to join the Pima Air & Space Museum. Dr. Naseem Rangwala, SOFIA Project Scientist at NASA Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, highlighted some of the portable telescope’s accomplishments:
“The SOFIA mission may be over, but the future is bright. SOFIA has made many important contributions to astrophysics and will continue to do so as our scientific community finds new and creative ways to analyze SOFIA data in the archive.
What future for SOFIA?
The jumbo jet will now undergo final preparations before being towed to the museum for eventual public display at the Pima Air & Space Museum. The museum, one of the largest aerospace museums in the world, is currently developing plans for how the SOFIA aircraft will eventually be displayed to the public. Pima also houses a dedicated restoration facility where it can preserve incoming aircraft like SOFIA for future generations.
The site includes six hangars, 80 acres of outdoor display grounds and more than 425 aircraft from around the world. SOFIA will join a host of other notable NASA aircraft at Pima, including the first Super Guppy that carried Saturn V rocket parts for the Apollo missions. The museum also houses the KC-135 “Weightless Wonder V”, which simulated low gravity conditions to conduct scientific experiments and train astronauts.
The exhibit will include additional mission artifacts that bear witness to SOFIA’s legacy and all of its valuable research contributions. Simple Flying took a look at six of SOFIA’s most fascinating discoveriesincluding spotting water on the sunlit side of the Moon and showing how matter comes together to form brand new stars. The SOFIA leadership team at NASA expressed their thanks to everyone who helped make the mission such a success:
“We want to express our gratitude to all of our American and German colleagues, who over the years have developed, tested and operated the Ames and Armstrong Observatory. It has been an incredible team effort to create and operate the largest airborne observatory in the world.”
“None of this would have been possible without the community of scientists who have used and supported SOFIA over the years. We look forward to hearing everything the SOFIA scientific community learns as it goes. with huge thanks that we at NASA say goodbye to SOFIA. We are sad to see you go but so happy to have worked with the SOFIA team.”
A life of service.
The Boeing 747SP originally served as Pan Am passenger aircraft known as the Clipper Lindbergh from 1977 to 1986. The aircraft then flew for United Airlines until NASA purchased it in 1997. At this point the airliner had to be modified to carry a giant 100 inch (2.5 meter) telescope weighing 38,000 pounds (17,000 kilograms). The telescope was provided by NASA’s partner on the SOFIA mission, the German Space Agency to DLR.
The plane was also equipped with a large rolling door on the side to allow the telescope to observe the sky. The door became one of the largest open ports ever used on an aircraft and the largest certified to fly at all altitudes and speeds with the door open. The telescope is so stable in flight that it is equivalent to holding a steady laser pointer for a dime 10 miles away.
The unique configuration allows SOFIA to fly above 99.9% water in the atmosphere, which is crucial for its molecular research. After reaching operational capability in 2014, SOFIA carried out missions around the world to observe star formation. He was responsible for the very first detection of helium hydride, the first type of molecule believed to have originated in the universe. SOFIA also turned its telescope to much closer celestial bodies, including Venus, Pluto, comets and the Moon.
SOFIA completed his last mission Wednesday, September 28, around 8:45 p.m. local time. The flight left Palmdale Airport and around the North Pacific Ocean for seven hours and 58 minutes before returning to be decommissioned.