NASA’s iconic Boeing 747 carrying the world’s largest meteorological observatory has completed its final flight. The Boeing 747SP, registered N747NA, belonged to NASA and was modified to carry a reflecting telescope for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), from which it derives its nickname.
Sophia took off for the last time from NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Palmdale, California, to her new “permanent home” at the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona. The Airmen departed at 8:31 this morning and made one last flyby of the area, complete with wing tilts, to acknowledge everyone in the community who has supported and worked on SOFIA.
The aircraft touched down in Tucson at Davis Monthan Air Force Base this afternoon at 11:33 local time and will now undergo final preparations to join the Pima Air and Space Museum. Dr. Nasim Rangwala, Sophia Project Scientist at NASA Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, highlighted some of the portable telescope’s accomplishments:
Sofia’s mission may be over, but the future is bright. Sophia has made many important contributions to astrophysics and will continue to do so as our scientific community finds new and innovative ways to analyze Sophia’s data in the archives.”
What’s next for Sophia?
The giant plane will now undergo final preparations before being towed back to the museum for eventual public display at the Pima Air and Space Museum. The museum, one of the world’s largest aviation museums, is making plans for how Sofia’s plane will eventually be shown to the public. Pima is also home to a dedicated restoration facility where it can preserve upcoming aircraft such as SOFIA for generations to come.
The site includes six hangars, 80 acres of outdoor exhibit space, and more than 425 aircraft from around the world. Sophia will join a host of other notable NASA aircraft at Pima, including the first Super Jupiter that carried Saturn V rocket parts for the Apollo missions. The museum is also home to the KC-135 “Weightless Wonder V”, which simulates low-gravity conditions to conduct science experiments and train astronauts.
The exhibition will include additional mission artifacts that speak to Sophia’s legacy and all of her valuable contributions to research. Simple Flying took a look at six of SOFIA’s most amazing discoveries, including the discovery of water on the sunlit side of the Moon and showing how material clumps together to form entirely new stars. Sophia’s leadership team at NASA expressed their thanks to everyone who helped contribute to the mission’s success:
“We want to express our gratitude to everyone, our colleagues in the US and Germany, who have developed, tested and operated the observatory at Ames and Armstrong over the years. It was 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 all that the science community learns of SOFIA as we go. With all thanks, we at NASA say goodbye to Sofia. We are sad to see you go but happy So very good to work with Sofia team.”
The Boeing 747SP initially served as a Pan Am passenger plane known as the Lindbergh Clipper from 1977 to 1986. It then flew the aircraft for United Airlines until NASA purchased it in 1997. At this point, the aircraft had to be modified to carry a giant telescope of 100 inches (2.5 m) long and weighs 38,000 lb (17,000 kg). The telescope was provided by NASA’s partner on the SOFIA mission, the German Space Agency’s DLR.
The plane is also equipped with a large revolving door on the side to allow periscopes to view the sky. The door became one of the largest openings ever 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’s the equivalent of keeping a laser pointer steady on a penny from 10 miles away.
SOFIA’s unique setup allows it to fly above 99.9% of the water in the atmosphere, which is critical to its research in molecules. After achieving operational capability in 2014, SOFIA has flown missions around the world to observe how stars form. She was responsible for making the first ever discovery of helium hydride, the first type of particle thought to have originated in the universe. Sophia also turned her telescope toward the nearest celestial bodies, including Venus, Pluto, comets, and the Moon.
Sophia completed its last mission on Wednesday, September 28, at approximately 20:45 local time. The flight left Palmdale Airport and around the North Pacific Ocean for seven hours and 58 minutes before returning to decommission.
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