PALMDALE — The COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing public health concerns has meant a litany of canceled events this summer. Add to the list another one: the annual Southern Hemisphere observations by the Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA.
NASA’s flying telescope, which calls Palmdale home, will not travel to New Zealand this summer as planned, given the pandemic concerns.
Instead, program officials are working on a revised flight schedule of science missions from Palmdale.
SOFIA is a modified 747 airliner carrying a 100-inch infrared telescope. Flying above the water vapor in the atmosphere, it allows astronomers to peer into the far reaches of the universe.
The observatory conducts the majority of its flights from NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center’s facility adjacent to Air Force Plant 42. However, it typically spends from roughly June to August each year based in Christchurch, New Zealand, to make observations from the Southern Hemisphere during the long winter nights there.
SOFIA’s flights were temporarily suspended March 19, in response to the COVID-19 situation, and the New Zealand deployment canceled when it became clear it was not feasible.
“Though we can’t fly to New Zealand this year, we are excited about leveraging new opportunities to observe from our base in California,” Naseem Rangwala, SOFIA’s project scientist, said. “As always, we are thankful to the New Zealand government, US Antarctic Program, Christchurch Airport, German Aerospace Center and other partners for the extensive work and cooperation that went into evaluating options for a deployment this year. We value the scientific data we collect from Christchurch and look forward to returning in the future.”
The SOFIA team is preparing to return to flight and coordinating new flight plans to focus on high-priority celestial objects for observation.
Those observations scheduled for this summer from New Zealand will be evaluated to see if they may be rescheduled to a future year’s deployment, program officials said.