Flying Telescope Escapes 13-Year Purgatory to Glimpse Heavens

After cost overruns and delays that threatened to keep it grounded forever, a NASA airplane observatory is finally ready to take to the skies. Being launched today from Primdale Palmdale, California, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy—a modified Boeing 747 with a 2.5-meter, German-built telescope on board—will fly at about 12,190 meters above Earth to snap high-resolution pictures of the Milky Way's center, star-forming regions elsewhere in the galaxy, and nearby galaxies. Unlike ground-based observatories, which cannot see infrared rays well because of atmospheric moisture, and space-based observatories, which ultimately run out of required cryogen, SOFIA will offer researchers the ability to service its instruments periodically on the ground.

Started in 1997, the project was originally estimated to cost about $250 million and launch by 2005. But by 2003, the anticipated expense had already ballooned to $375 million, and the Government Accountability Office cited SOFIA as an example of the unrealistic baseline estimates that have plagued many astronomy missions. As costs continued to escalate and the launch date got pushed back, NASA officials toyed with the idea of killing SOFIA entirely, leading its German partners to protest in 2006. NASA eventually decided to stick with the project even though the final bill came to well over $500 million.

The first instrument to fly on board the observatory is the Faint Object infraRed CAmera for the SOFIA Telescope (FORCAST). When the plane takes off today for the instrument's first run of observations, it will have on board a scientific crew that includes Terry Herter, an astronomer at Cornell University who led the team that built FORCAST, and a dozen researchers and technicians from the United States and Germany.