Sofia, the Airplane-Borne Telescope, Lands for the Last Time

Over the past eight years, a modified Boeing 747 jetliner has flown hundreds of flights on a unique mission: carrying a 19-ton, 2.5-meter telescope known as Sofia, or the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy. Flying a telescope on a jumbo jet offered a way to peer into the heavens at wavelengths that could not be glimpsed from the ground—but the ticket was expensive. So yesterday, NASA and the German space agency grounded the mission. Its final flight landed early Thursday morning at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in the desert near Los Angeles.

Sofia was an innovative way to gaze at the infrared universe. Infrared light is essentially heat radiation—but

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