One of the oldest and rarest models of Boeing’s 747SP jumbo jet, has just returned to California after being overhauled and upgraded at Lufthansa Technik’s Hamburg facility. It’s SOFIA, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy. In other words, it’s a flying telescope.

SOFIA Southern Lights
Aurora Australis, or Southern Lights, was observed by the flight crew and science team members aboard the SOFIA flying observatory during July 2013.

SOFIA is a joint project between NASA in the US and the German Aerospace Centre (known as DLR). The highly modified 747SP, now 37 years old, went through an extensive overhaul over a period of almost six months, before flying back to the Armstrong Flight Research Center in Palmdale, Cailfornia. The observatory uses infrared radiation to look at the birth of stars.

Andrea Razzaghi, deputy director of Astrophysics at NASA Headquarters, looked back briefly over the milestones achieved during the SOFIA Project: “In 2011, SOFIA was the first observatory to record the occultation of a star by the dwarf planet Pluto, which allowed scientists to evaluate Pluto’s atmosphere. Back in 2011 and 2013, the German GREAT spectrometer was the first to discover molecules in the interstellar medium, which are crucial to understanding how water and organic substances form in the Universe. Among other things, we studied the comet ISON and the supernova SN2014J in 2013 and 2014.”

SOFIA Lufthansa Technik
NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) inside the cavernous Lufthansa Technik hangar in Hamburg, Germany where it was scheduled to undergo major inspections and maintenance.

Lufthansa Technik is one of the world’s leading 747 maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) companies.

“In total, we worked over 60,000 hours on SOFIA,” said Andreas Britz, SOFIA project manager at Lufthansa Technik. “We disassembled and reassembled the entire cockpit, replaced the undercarriage, checked and serviced all the aircraft structures, replaced two engines and brought all the engines and pylons up to date.”

Servicing the aircraft also included the on-board 17-ton telescope with a mirror diameter of approximately 2.7 metres.

“We used the layover period in Hamburg to also complete maintenance work on the telescope, replacing worn parts and improving the telescope functionality,” explained SOFIA director Thomas Keilig. After returning to California, SOFIA will resume scientific flights in January.


 SOFIA Heavy Maintenance Time Lapse video