We have a special guest arriving in Christchurch this weekend – NASA’s Strategic Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). Built into the frame of a specially modified Boeing 747 jumbo jet (and thus hard to miss), SOFIA is the world’s only airborne telescope, designed to soar above the water vapor and other lower atmosphere distortions that cause problems for ground-based observatories.
A collaboration between NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), SOFIA can fly for extended periods well above 40,000 feet (12,000 meters), allowing its astronomers to conduct infrared research that would be impossible on the surface of the Earth. The plane carries an array of instruments including a high-speed imager and a sensitive far-infrared spectrometer.
Research performed on SOFIA can provide insights into distant star formation, the chemical composition of deep space, and the nature of the atmospheres of other planets within our solar system. The current mission is focused on studying G35, a massive protostar still in the early stages of its development. G35 provides an excellent opportunity to learn more about how stars are formed.
With a far southern latitude, long runway, and uncongested air space, Christchurch is an ideal base for SOFIA’s current mission. Over the course of the next three weeks or so, SOFIA will make nine long (all-night) flights around New Zealand air space studying the heavens before heading home to California.
SOFIA is currently scheduled to arrive in Christchurch this Sunday afternoon. If you live in the area, keep an eye out for the huge plane with the NASA logo and German and American flags. It’s quite a sight.