The Journey Down to Southern Astronomical Skies

Dr. Kimberly Ennico Smith, SOFIA Project Scientist

SOFIA, the world’s only flying observatory, is in Christchurch, New Zealand for the next few weeks, to enable unique infrared observations from the Southern Hemisphere. From here, we can study our galaxy’s center and nearby galaxies, the Magellanic Clouds, which will feature prominently in our observations in the weeks to come.

I flew onboard SOFIA on the journey south from its home base at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center, in southern California. We stopped in Honolulu, Hawaii, to refuel and change crews on the way to New Zealand.

During the flight, I got a chance to hang out in the cockpit and spend time with the flight engineer. He explained what all the dials and buttons do — some monitor the temperature of the engines and control the engine heaters, others monitor the airplane’s elevation.

The pilots and flight engineer aboard SOFIA. (NASA Photo)

The rest of my fellow passengers were a mixture of mechanics, software engineers, telescope operators, and avionics technicians. We got to chatting about all sorts of avionics systems and swapped stories. They know the world of aircraft inside and out and it was truly a pleasure to pick their brains over the two long flights down south.

SOFIA landing at Christchurch International Airport.

We are ready to observe the solar system and beyond from the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Program Facility at Christchurch Airport!

Welcome to the SOFIA Southern Deployment Blog – 2015 Edition

These pages will bring news and information about our science observations during our mission’s six-week deployment to observe the southern skies.

SOFIA arrived in Christchurch, New Zealand, on June 14 (New Zealand date) to begin the observatory’s second Southern Hemisphere deployment. The team’s first visit to Christchurch was in 2013, and that deployment was an outstanding success. The quality of the science data obtained from our previous flights out of Christchurch was excellent, and we’re expecting similar results again this year.

As you read this, our staff is conducting mission operations from the National Science Foundation’s U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) facility on Christchurch International Airport. Our mission is grateful to the National Science Foundation for making this facility available to us. The USAP facility is not in use during New Zealand’s winter, which is the reverse season to the Northern Hemisphere, so this is an ideal opportunity to make use of an otherwise idle base.

SOFIA landing at Christchurch International Airport on Sunday, June 14. Photo: NASA/USRA/SOFIA/N. Veronico
SOFIA landing at Christchurch International Airport on Sunday, June 14. Photo: NASA/USRA/SOFIA/N. Veronico

In 2013, SOFIA flew with one instrument, the German REceiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies, GREAT. This year our scientific productivity will be greatly increased, as we will make observations with four instruments (Faint Object InfraRed CAmera for the SOFIA Telescope – FORCAST, First Light Infrared Test Experiment CAMera – FLITECAM, GREAT, and High-speed Imaging Photometer for Occultations – HIPO).

With a four-fold increase in science instrument capability, we will perform science observations on parts of the universe that are not accessible from the Northern Hemisphere. Additionally, we will incorporate a special observation which we call a “target of opportunity,” to observe a Pluto occultation as it passes in front of a star. The Pluto observation has the potential to provide cross-mission science data to the New Horizons mission, further demonstrating SOFIA’s scientific productivity. SOFIA’s observation of Pluto will occur on June 29th, just a couple of weeks before the New Horizons’ spacecraft fly-by of Pluto on July 14th.

I am really excited about the science plan for this year’s Southern Hemisphere campaign, and I have no doubt that there will be obstacles and challenges during deployment operations. The science we obtain will be worth all of the long hours and the days away from home.

Ground crew working into the night on SOFIA. Photo:  NASA/USRA/SOFIA/Greg Perryman.
Ground crew working into the night on SOFIA. Photo: NASA/USRA/SOFIA/Greg Perryman.

I look forward to everyone’s safe return home and to another SOFIA team success!

Eddie Zavala – Program Manager