SOFIA to Return from French Polynesia Deployment

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, will return to its base of operations in Palmdale, California, after a four-week deployment in French Polynesia. The SOFIA team completed 13 successful flights from the Fa’a’ā International Airport, where the team observed targets in the Southern Hemisphere.

SOFIA landing in French Polynesia with mountains in the background and tropical trees in the foreground
SOFIA lands at Fa’a’ā International Airport in French Polynesia during deployment. Credit: Robert Simon

The team is returning approximately one month ahead of schedule due to updated COVID-19 precautions. The decision to return SOFIA early to its base of operations aligns with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention travel guidelines and SOFIA mission partner health and safety protocols. The team is focused on conducting a safe and orderly departure and will return within the next week.

“We are very grateful to the French Polynesian government for their warm welcome and hospitality while SOFIA was in country,” said Naseem Rangwala, SOFIA Project Scientist. “Flying from this Southern Hemisphere base allowed us to complete important observations that contribute to our scientific community’s needs.”

During the deployment, the team observed the concentration of hydride molecules in our Milky Way galaxy and their relation to cosmic rays with the German Receiver at Terahertz Frequencies, or GREAT, instrument. The team also studied star formation, looking at how stellar winds might be triggering or quenching star formation in their surroundings. The opportunity to fly from the Southern Hemisphere also allowed SOFIA to make observations of atomic oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere. This will help the team of scientists understand the distribution of atomic oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere during different seasons and different parts of the world, contributing to the understanding of climate change.

SOFIA is a joint project of NASA and the German Space Agency at DLR. DLR provides the telescope, scheduled aircraft maintenance, and other support for the mission. NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley manages the SOFIA program, science, and mission operations in cooperation with the Universities Space Research Association, headquartered in Columbia, Maryland, and the German SOFIA Institute at the University of Stuttgart. The aircraft is maintained and operated by NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center Building 703, in Palmdale, California.