Kurt Bayer is a Herald reporter based in Christchurch

Nasa observatory set for Kiwi flights of fancy

The world's largest flying observatory has arrived in New Zealand for a series of cutting-edge night-flying missions to help unlock the mysteries of the universe.

The highly-modified Boeing jetliner and huge internal telescope, Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), arrived in Christchurch yesterday to study galaxies best seen from the Southern Hemisphere.

For the next eight weeks, the unique aircraft and its Nasa crew of scientists, astronomers, mechanics and technicians will make up to two dozen 10-hour night scientific flights out of the US National Science Foundation's Antarctic Program facility at Christchurch International Airport.

The Boeing 747SP, originally built in the late 70s as a Pan Am passenger plane, has had hundreds of seats removed and instead has been fitted with a giant gyro-stabilised highly-sensitive 2.7m-diameter telescope and Nasa-style control centre.

Once the plane reaches an altitude of 35,000-feet (10.6km), a specially-fitted door opens for the telescope to peek out.

It makes observations that are impossible for even the largest and highest of ground-based telescopes as the plane flies from 39,000-45,000-feet (12-14km) which puts it above 99 per cent of the Earth's infrared-blocking water vapor layer.

The aircraft also carries heavier, more powerful instruments than space-based observatories, which can also be changed and upgraded for different missions.

The observatory's position, along with its suite of seven highly-specialised instruments, make it ideally suited for use in studying a range of astronomical objects and phenomena, including the life cycle of stars, formation of new solar systems, black holes at the centre of galaxies, nebulae and interstellar dust, complex molecules in spaces, and the planets, comets and asteroids in our solar system.

"It's hard to beat the quality of the science data that we obtain while observing from New Zealand," said program manager Eddie Zavala.

"We are looking forward to another outstanding series of observations."

When flying out of New Zealand, SOFIA's astronomers can study celestial objects that are best observed from southern latitudes, such as star formation within the Magellanic Clouds.

The Magellanic Clouds are two satellite galaxies of our Milky Way galaxy.

From the aircraft's home base in California, scientists on SOFIA typically study star formation within the Milky Way, but flying in the Southern Hemisphere gives scientists a view of star formation within these neighbouring galaxies.

Comparing stellar evolution in the Magellanic Clouds and the Milky Way enables scientists to better understand how the earliest generations of stars in our universe formed.

Science mission director Erick Young, a worldwide expert on infrared astronomy, said New Zealand was an ideal base from which to launch missions to observe the Milky Way.

The German-built 17-tonne telescope is a "wonder of engineering", he said, able to detect a small coin from as far as 200km away.

This year's observations follow southern observing flights last year, which included studying Pluto's atmosphere just two weeks before Nasa's New Horizons mission made its nearest approach to Pluto.

The team will also hunt remnants of the famous SN 1987A supernova -- a massive star explosion that occurred in 1987 and was close enough that it was visible to the naked eye for those in the Southern Hemisphere.

SOFIA, a joint project of Nasa and the German Aerospace Center, is based at Nasa's Armstrong Flight Research Center at Palmdale, California.


* Planets

* Comets

* Astrochemistry

* Planetary nebulae

* Galactic centre

* Supernova

* Star formation

- NZ Herald

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