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NOV. 18, 2021

Science Minister meets with NASA representatives to discuss the SOFIA astronomical mission in Chile

The team of the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) is visiting Chile to study the feasibility that the aircraft, which carries a 2.7-meter infrared telescope, takes off from or lands at our country’s airports. 

Science Minister Andrés Couve received SOFIA Mission Operations Development Lead, Ed Harmon, research pilot, Andrew Barry, and a group of US Embassy representatives at Chile’s Science Ministry to talk about the possibility of collaborating with the NASA space agency. 

According to the US delegation, the SOFIA team is examining the viability of operating the spacecraft – a Boeing 747SP modified to carry a 2.7-meter reflecting telescope – from Chilean airports and making observations from our country’s bases. 

Minister Couve explained, “in the meeting we were able to discuss new collaborations with an astronomical observation system that complements the significant installed capacity of ground-based telescopes that we already have in Chile.” 

The Science Minister also stated that “collaborating with the SOFIA project opens up an opportunity for aerial space exploration, a different capacity to observe our skies and a window for our research community, to continue promoting our talent and our territory’s possibilities for scientific expeditions.” 

Ed Harmon explained that, after meeting with Minister Couve, the advance team will take all the information to the NASA board in the US and decide whether to operate SOFIA from Chile next year: “Chile has great meteorological advantages, conditions for observation, modern infrastructure and the possibility to have alternative landing points. We’re very optimistic about the meeting, knowing we have such a high level of support.” 

During their visit to Chile, NASA’s assessment team will also meet with Santiago airport officials and potential service providers to analyze logistical and operational conditions. 

SOFIA details 

SOFIA, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, is a Boeing 747SP aircraft modified to carry a 2.7-meter (106-inch) reflecting telescope (with an effective diameter of 2.5 meters, or 100 inches). Flying into the stratosphere at 38,000-45,000 feet puts SOFIA above 99% of the Earth’s infrared blocking atmosphere, which allows astronomers to study the solar system in ways that are not possible with ground-based telescopes, due to the absorption of layers of the atmosphere that remain below the flight height of the aircraft. 

The observatory’s mobility allows researchers to observe from almost anywhere on the planet and allows studies of transient events that often take place over oceans, where there are no telescopes. 

The SOFIA mission has had previous collaborations with New Zealand and French Polynesia (Tahiti, in July 2021).