Space enthusiasts are bidding farewell to an aerial observatory as it makes its latest international trip to Christchurch.
SOFIA – short for Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy – is a 747 modified to fit a 2.7m telescope.
For 10 years, the plane helped scientists collect data that a ground-based telescope might have missed — but it was shut down as new technology took its place.
Naseem Rangwala, NASA project scientist on the SOFIA mission, said Ottaway became a home away from home for the California-based flight.
“Christ Church has played a huge role in Sophia’s scientific success and will continue to do so,” she said. “Our team has built very deep friendships and relationships with the people of Christchurch.”
This was the seventh trip where you would spend 32 nights on Earth.
The plane flies for 10 hours at a time, flying above 39,000 feet to traverse 99 percent of Earth’s infrared-blocking atmosphere.
This latter work focused specifically on mapping the magnetic fields of the Milky Way, as well as many other astronomical phenomena – some made possible by the local climate.
“The reason we come to New Zealand is because the air is dry, so our scientists and astronomers like to fly out of New Zealand.”
Rocket Lab scientist and former NASA trainee Ross Sowers is one of the lucky ones on the mission.
“I’m so excited to be on the plane and so excited to fly with me because everybody wants to do it,” she said.
Sophia is a unique technology, she said.
“Usually the atmosphere is in the way, the pollution is in the way, but Sofia is beyond that. It’s amazing that we can fly from Christchurch and see what’s so far in space.
One of the other girls on the plane was Sophie Inson, a 14-year-old from Dunedin.
“It’s too heavy to sit here,” she said.
“It’s pretty amazing to see all the things that go on behind the scenes.”
The US Embassy found her after advocating to educate more girls about career paths in space.
“I wrote to the Prime Minister saying we need more Kiwi guides, female guides for young children, space and science.”
Sophia’s journey ignited her passion for a career in science communication, he said.
Rangwala said this will be a final farewell for the employees who have completed hundreds of jobs with Sophia.
“We will celebrate 10 years of highly successful scientific work on this unique, complex and amazing platform. Together, we will rejoice and hold hands, and we will say goodbye to Sophia.
Sophia will leave for California next month, where her final assignments will last until October 1.
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