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SOFIA returns to Christchurch

07 June 2018

NASA’s largest flying astronomical observatory has returned to Christchurch to continue exploring the mysteries of outer space.

SOFIA, a modified Boeing 747SP that carries a 38,000 pound, 100-inch diameter infrared telescope in her tail section, is one of NASA’s premier astrophysics programs.

Armed with a high-tech arsenal of instruments, SOFIA navigates the night skies at around 1,000 kilometers per hour, capturing images of planets, asteroids and outer space.


ChristchurchNZ chief executive Joanna Norris says Christchurch’s excellent facilities, a world class city, dry skies and perfect stellar positioning make it an ideal leaping off point to explore outer space

“Christchurch currently has all the componentry to support a future space industry. Supporting programs like these are reflective of our city’s spirit of exploration,” Ms Norris says.

"Supporting programs like these are reflective of our city’s spirit of exploration," - ChristchurchNZ chief executive Joanna Norris.


“This includes world class hi tech component manufacturers and tech companies providing solutions and parts for global aerospace companies, to education providers and schools with space programmes that visit NASA facilities, through to higher level training of rocket guidance systems, along with regulatory bodies that monitor airspace across NZ and other parts of the world.”

“Christchurch also plays a unique and important role in connecting Antarctica research with outer space as one only five global Antarctica gateways and home to the inaugural space challenge,” Ms Norris says.

Christchurch has become the temporary home for 120 NASA staff who will take part in 25 overnight flights over the next seven weeks, injecting more than $5 million into the local economy in accommodation and related costs.

They’ll be looking at a range of celestial objects best observed from the Southern Hemisphere, including our neighbouring galaxy the Large Magellanic Cloud and the  and the centre of our own Milky Way galaxy.

Researchers plan to chase down the shadow cast by Saturn’s largest moon Titan when it passes in front of a distant star in an eclipse-like event called an occultation.

Each flight launches in the evening and will operate for roughly 10 hours. The crew size varies, depending on the science and complexity of the mission.

This is the first time that SOFIA’s (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) newest instrument, the High-resolution Airborne Wideband Camera-Plus (HAWC+), which can study celestial magnetic fields, will be used in the Southern Hemisphere.

This is the seventh year SOFIA has operated its winter star-gazing missions out of Christchurch, based at the National Science Foundation's US Antarctic Program facility at Christchurch International Airport.