Skip to Content

18 Jul 2022

SOFIA and the South Island doing great things together

The crystal-clear and dry night skies above New Zealand are ideal for scientific observations by NASA’s flying telescope known as SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy).

SOFIA is a Boeing 747SP aircraft modified to carry a 2.7 metre reflecting telescope (with an effective diameter of 2.5 metres) and usually based in California.

SOFIA has spent seven winters at Christchurch Airport, which has become known as her home away from home. Flying 10-hour overnight missions at 38,000-45,000 feet and above 99 per cent of Earth’s infrared-blocking atmosphere, so astronomers on board can study the solar system and beyond, in ways not possible with ground-based telescopes.

As well as the spectacular 747SP aircraft that is SOFIA, NASA’s flying telescope and the people in the teams on its overnight high-altitude flights are fascinating. They have inspiring stories to tell, refer to the “sublime science” they get working from Christchurch, and have highlights of what they’ve seen and learned. SOFIA Mission Director Karina Leppik shares her knowledge from years of experience on board and her personal mission highlight.

SOFIA’s missions made many important discoveries and created special memories for those on board. The Mission Manager started with SOFIA before the telescope even went into the aircraft and has travelled the world and its dark skies ever since. This visit to Christchurch is not his first, but will be his last with SOFIA, and he reflects here on his time on the flying telescope – and what comes next. Meet Ed Harmon.

SOFIA’s seventh visit came to an end on August 11. The poignant farewell included a flyover of the South Island earlier in the week, much to the excitement of avid fans, and a tip of the wing on final departure as a “thank you” from the crew to the airport.

To learn more about SOFIA, visit their Facebook page or the NASA website.