…and takes off again in New Zealand!
There are ground based observatories and space based observatories…but the world’s largest flying astronomical observatory is currently visiting Christchurch to investigate the best of the Southern Hemisphere sky.
The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) is joint project between NASA and the German Space Agency, DLR. SOFIA is transported by a highly modified Boeing 747SP airliner, while on board a German-built telescope 2.7 metres in diameter is able to provide detailed views in the visible, infra-red and submillimeter spectrum.
SOFIA flies at altitudes as high as 13,700 metres, providing access to astronomical signals that would otherwise be blocked due to absorption by water vapour in the atmosphere. Usually based in California, this is SOFIA’s first ever mission in the Southern Hemisphere and it has a full schedule of southern celestial objects to view.
During SOFIA’s nine flights from Christchurch, astronomers have used the telescope to observe the disk of gas and dust orbiting the black hole at the centre of our Milky Way galaxy and the two Magellanic Cloud galaxies, which are easily seen in the Southern Hemisphere.
The SOFIA telescope concludes its New Zealand deployment on 2 August and the images are expected to be released after peer review in approximately 12 months – but there are hopes the observatory will return again each winter for more southern explorations.