Cologne Bonn to play host to NASA’s SOFIA as it begins science observations

Conducted over a six week period, researchers hope to find the answers to fundamental questions in astronomy

SOFIA – NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy – is set to conduct its very first series of science observations from Germany between February and March of this year.

The specially modified Boeing 747SP touched down at the airport yesterday (February 4) from Hamburg where it had been undergoing a heavy maintenance C check at Lufthansa Technik’s facility in Hamburg, since September last year.

Photo NASA

The observatory will now take advantage of its proximity to science teams that are situated at the Max Planck Institute of Radio Astronomy in Bonn and the University of Cologne. They operate the German Receiver at Terahertz Frequencies (GREAT) to conduct research flights from Cologne Bonn Airport.

“We are very proud that NASA has Cologne Bonn Airport as the base for SOFIA's first German scientific flight campaign. This underlines the international importance of Cologne Bonn,” said Johan Vanneste, CEO of Flughafen Köln/Bonn. “A 40-member project team, together with many external contributors, has meticulously prepared the campaign over the past weeks and months. A heartfelt thank you to all those involved – I am looking forward to a very exciting six weeks with an international team.”

When flying to Christchurch, New Zealand, SOFIA is able to study objects only visible in the skies over the southern hemisphere. It has also completed one science flight from Germany back in 2019.

However, this is the first time a multi-flight observing campaign will be conducted over European soil. Over a six week period, 20 overnight research flights will be conducted, with the focus being on high-priority observations. This includes several large programmes that had to be rescheduled from Spring of last year due to the pandemic.

With the implementation of COVID-19 safety measures, SOFIA will search for signatures of celestial models, ions and atoms – potentially unlocking unknown secrets of the universe.

The 44-year-old widebody is a former Pan American World Airways and United Airlines example that first flew with the defunct carrier on May 6, 1977. NASA later acquired the jet from the Chicago-based carrier on October 20, 1997.

The SOFIA programme is managed at NASA’s Ames Research Centre in California’s Silicon Valley. The aircraft is operated by the Armstrong Flight Research Centre building 703 in Palmdale, California.