15 Jun 2015

Space observatory returns to Christchurch

6:58 pm on 15 June 2015

The world's largest airborne space observatory has touched down in Christchurch for a second season.

SOFIA has a telescope with a diameter of 2.5 metres.

SOFIA has a telescope with a diameter of 2.5 metres. Photo: NASA

NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) will conduct 17 flights over the next six weeks.

The €80 million telescope operates from the back of a converted jumbo jet, which flies for 10 hours each mission.

The plane is usually based at NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center in Palmdale, California, but touched down in Christchurch last night for a second season.

The plane is usually based at NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center in Palmdale, California.

The plane is usually based at NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center in Palmdale, California. Photo: NASA

The project is a joint venture between NASA which runs the programme and the DLR (German Aerospace Centre) which built the telescope.

DLR's telescope chief engineer Heinz Hammes said the possibilities with the telescope were endless.

"It is priceless, it is the only telescope of its kind in the world."

He said by flying at 45,000 feet the telescope provided access to things in space that would otherwise be blocked from water vapour.

"It can see the Milky Way Galaxy, young stars, star forming regions and several nearby galaxies."

Inside SOFIA, the world's largest airborne space observatory.

Inside SOFIA, the world's largest airborne space observatory. Photo: RNZ / Sally Murphy

Mission operations manager Edward Harmon said the clear, cold conditions in New Zealand were perfect for observing space.

"Some of the things we are looking for, we can not see in the Northern Hemisphere, and the atmosphere here is as close to space as we have ever seen."

Edward Harmon SOFIA mission operations manager (left) and Heinz Hammes DLR's telescope chief engineer.

Edward Harmon SOFIA mission operations manager (left) and Heinz Hammes DLR's telescope chief engineer. Photo: RNZ / Sally Murphy

Mr Harmon said this year there was a focus on observing Pluto.

"Scientists want to gain a better understanding of the atmosphere around the planet, so they can study planet formation."

He said funding for the programme was currently under the US Senate, so its future was not guaranteed.

"We are nervous SOFIA has been through its ups and downs, but I am optimistic."

SOFIA's first flight is on Wednesday night and the progamme runs until 24 July.

  • First space telescope flights completed
  • Space telescope venture to use Christchurch as base