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NASA's Flying SOFIA Telescope Observatory Damaged by Storm

The modified 747 is going to need some new stairs as the end of its mission looms.

Large 747 airplane with a blue stripe seen nose-on inside a hangar.
SOFIA is a modified 747SP.

NASA's telescope-on-an-airplane is down for maintenance. The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, aka SOFIA, is a modified Boeing 747SP with a telescope on board. It was visiting New Zealand to gather data on the skies of the Southern Hemisphere when a "severe weather event" damaged the plane.

NASA said in a statement this week that "high winds caused the stairs outside the aircraft to shift, causing light damage to the front of the aircraft, as well as the stairs themselves." There were no injuries. The plane will require new stairs. According to the SOFIA team, repairs will take at least three weeks, which will put the kibosh on any more science observation flights in New Zealand.

Here's SOFIA parked at  Christchurch International Airport in New Zealand.

NASA/SOFIA/G. Perryman

Arriving in New Zealand in June, SOFIA had already "observed and studied a wide range of celestial objects and phenomena, like cosmic magnetic fields, structure of the Milky Way, and the origin of cosmic rays." 

The unique telescope system was famously involved with NASA finding definitive evidence of water on the moon. The plane flies high enough to get above pesky water vapor in Earth's atmosphere that can muddy telescope observations.

Once repaired, SOFIA will head back home to California. The loss of work time is unfortunate since the observatory is nearing the end of its mission. NASA announced in April that SOFIA would end operations no later than Sept. 30, citing operating costs versus productivity as a factor.

Prior to NASA, the SOFIA airplane was a passenger jet. It completed its first flight after receiving its science modifications in 2007, but wasn't declared fully operational until 2014. The observatory is jointly operated by NASA and the German Aerospace Center.

SOFIA is expected to take some more science flights after being repaired, a fitting way to see it into retirement.