Kurt Bayer is a Herald reporter based in Christchurch

Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy takes to the skies around New Zealand

The world's largest flying observatory, Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (Sofia), is in New Zealand for a series of groundbreaking missions to help unlock the mysteries of the universe. Herald reporter Kurt Bayer tagged along on a flight out of Christchurch last night to witness science in action.

"What's that?" I ask, pointing to a red planet-looking circle on one of countless computer screens.

It's not a planet-looking thing at all, apparently. But rather, infra-red imaging highlighting a series of mass stars forming.

Most of the stars cannot be seen from Earth with the naked eye, says Dr Andrew Helton, Sofia principal investigator for last night's forecast mission.

He's up front in the blue overalls. He knows stuff. I'd sidled up for a yarn.

In fact, the stars illuminated like burning magnesium on his screen right now might not even be there any more, Dr Helton says.

Eh?

The stars, he explained slowly, were "probably" thousands of light years away.

So... essentially we're looking into the past?

Yup.

So... by the time the light arrives on Earth, things could've dramatically changed. They may not even be there any more?

Yup.

My head hurts. I head to the front of the plane for a lie down.

We weren't even halfway through the 10-hour flight and it had already been a long day.

Infra-red imaging captured by the Sofia telescope highlighting a series of mass stars forming.
Infra-red imaging captured by the Sofia telescope highlighting a series of mass stars forming.

After meeting at the US National Science Foundation's Antarctic Program facility at Christchurch International Airport early yesterday afternoon (Tuesday), there was a 25-minute egress talk - a more in-depth and more terrifying version of your typical in-flight safety training video. There were no Hobbits or rapping All Blacks.

We're told to carry our Emergency Passenger Oxygen System (Epos) at all times on Sofia, a Boeing 747SP, originally built in the late 70s as a Pan Am passenger plane. Hundreds of seats were ripped out and replaced by a giant telescope and Nasa control centre.

If we suddenly lose cabin pressure, or are engulfed by smoke or fumes, we rip open our Epos and put a plastic bag over our head which inflates with an oxygen canister.

"It means your head could handle 1000 degrees of heat. Your body will be burnt to a crisp, but your head will be fine," one wag jibes.

The telescope makes observations that are impossible for even the largest and highest of ground-based telescopes thanks to the plane flying at an altitude of 39,000-45,000 feet (12-14km) in the stratosphere, which puts it above 99 per cent of the Earth's infrared-blocking water vapour layer. That's the whole reason they're here, above our clear southern skies.

Tonight, we were skimming the Earth's roof while flying down to the 65th parallel south, clipping the top of Antarctica. They aren't allowed to fly any further south as they might run out of fuel, or radio communication.

We have the skies to ourselves.

Take-off was like any other, except I was sat in train-style facing seats. Surrounded by some of the world's smartest people. And with plenty of leg room.

Once the plane reaches 35,000 feet (10.6km), a specially fitted door opens for the telescope to peek out. I'd been waiting to notice how the plane reacted.

Sofia's public affairs officer Nick Veronico suggested I brace against a handrail as they were about to open the door. Suspecting a mickey-take, I obediently did as I was told.

He then laughed at me, saying the door had been open for three minutes. I hadn't noticed any change in the plane's performance or aerodynamics. There was no turbulence or noise.

The telescope door design works smoothly. Photo / Wikipedia
The telescope door design works smoothly. Photo / Wikipedia

"It's a pretty incredible design," said flight systems engineer Cathy Davies.

"It worked like that on its first test flight and we've never had any issues since."

The gyro-stabilised, highly sensitive 2.7m-diameter telescope is unaffected by turbulence. While it appears to bounce up and down in rough air, it actually sits dead still, latched on to its focus, while the plane moves around it. It's mesmerising to watch.

The first "target" for the telescope to lock on to is Iota Carinae - one of the brighter stars in the night sky.

The crew trawled data on the star, which is about 690 light-years from the Earth and is radiating about 4900 times the luminosity of the Sun, for exactly 30 minutes. They then methodically set their sights on the next goal: a group of bright carbon stars in the Milky Way.

Next up was a star with the indie rock band sounding name, Alpha Boo -- an orange giant star which is "just" 36.7 light-years from Earth and the brightest star in the northern celestial hemisphere.

Every four minutes or so, the pilots make a one-degree turn in order for the plane, and therefore telescope, to stay fixed on the pre-planned flight route.

Flight plans take three months to devise. Sofia, a general purpose infrared observatory and joint project of Nasa and the German Aerospace Center, invites proposals from astronomers around the world on what they want to look at.

Sofia selects the projects they think are worthy before putting them into the mix to create a mission plan, which must incorporate both astronomical and aviation flight plans.

They have to make sure the Sun or Moon isn't in the way, while avoiding other planes, and factoring in things like wind direction and speed, both magnetic and true heading, water vapour, rotation of field, and "local sidereal time".

It's Veronico's 31st mission. And he's not bored yet.

"I love every minute of it," the Californian native says.

"There's always something new. The best part is the science briefing because it gives you context, and it's great to see the astrophysicists so excited too."

The crew has things down pat. It is Sofia's third visit Downunder. Last year's missions included work studying Pluto's atmosphere just two weeks before Nasa's New Horizons mission made its nearest approach to Pluto.

A view looking tailward through the cabin of NASA's SOFIA flying observatory. At the back, two science instruments jut from a bulkhead. Photo / Mike Wall / Space.com
A view looking tailward through the cabin of NASA's SOFIA flying observatory. At the back, two science instruments jut from a bulkhead. Photo / Mike Wall / Space.com

Sometimes, scientists whose research proposals have been accepted join the ride.

But most of the time, on-board astronomers collect the data to be analysed later.

Final findings won't be published for another year.

Sofia staff generally don't do back-to-back flights.

"It's not that you can't do it, it's just that it's horrible," says Veronico.

By 1am, I'm starting to fade. My capacity for astronomical lingo - protoclusters, transient collisional processes, millimetre spectral energy distribution, radiative transfer modelling - is shot.

We've crossed the International Date Line twice. Which meant we witnessed three days in 10 hours. Is that right? I need another lie down.

Perking me up was an Aurora Australis sighting. Out the port side upper-deck windows were wispy green clouds dancing in the un-touched black sky. It was like a private performance put on just for us. Best in-flight movie ever.

The US crew snacks on Tim Tams. We had to bring our own food. There's no in-flight dinner, no drinks trolley. I stocked up on ham rolls, scroggin, and Fruit Bursts.

I thought I'd want coffee. But all I really needed was water. Gallons of it, to borrow a Nasa term, averaging a bottle every hour. At such a high altitude, above the Southern Ocean, the humidity level inside the aircraft was below 2 per cent on a $2 plastic hygrometer. It was like being a raisin laid in the sun.

The scientists calmly performed their experiments. Occasionally they would remark, 'Oh that's cool", or "Did you see that?"

Shot of a Sofia computer screen showing the outside static air temperature of -77C during last night's flight.
Shot of a Sofia computer screen showing the outside static air temperature of -77C during last night's flight.

At 43,000 feet, nearing Antarctica, the temperature suddenly plummeted. It reached as low as -78C. With a bulky jacket on, it was still relatively comfortable inside the highly modified Boeing jetliner, though my possum-wool socks were a disappointment.

The crew had never seen it as cold as -78C. The flight crew dropped altitude, seeking warmer air. They feared freezing fuel could stall the engines.

"Yeah, that wouldn't be good," one of the incredibly laidback and laconic pilots smirked.

The descent into Christchurch happened quickly.

We'd flown over 8000km, expanded our knowledge of our galaxy and the wider universe, and arrived back where we started.

Dr Helton deemed the night a success.

"All our observations were completed, so we're happy with the results," he said.

"We observed a lot of different stars tonight. We observed a massive star cluster, we observed a main sequence star with a debris disk around it and two other main sequence stars that also had different types of dust and small rocky debris surrounding them, so quite a lot going on."

Untangling myself from headsets and wires, I disembarked and headed home, dog-tired, wired, and desperate for bed.

And although it felt like I could sleep for light years, I lay awake with my head spinning: Did I just fly to Antarctica and back, experiencing three days in 10 hours, at ridiculous -78C, under a flashing green aurora, to witness stars in a galaxy far, far away that may or may not exist any more? Mind-blowing.

SOFIA FLIGHT - BY THE NUMBERS

• -78C: The temperature it plunged to outside, almost freezing the fuel

• 3: The number of times we crossed the International Date Line

• 43,000 feet (13.1kms): The altitude we reached over the Southern Ocean

• 99.9 per cent: The percentage of infrared-blocking water vapour we were above

• 4900: How much brighter star Iota Carinae is than the Sun.

• 8000km: The distance we flew from Christchurch, down to Antarctica, and back last night

WHAT SOFIA STUDIES

• Planets

• Comets

• Astrochemistry

• Planetary nebulae

• Galactic centre

• Supernova

• Star formation

- NZ Herald

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