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CSST goes airborne – on board NASA’s flying scientific observatory

By June 25, 2018 March 20th, 2019 No Comments

In mid-June Steve Cotter, CSST CEO and Dr Delwyn Moller, CSST Director of Research were invited on board the NASA SOFIA flying observatory to witness space observations from a whole new perspective.

SOFIA stands for Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, and consists of a Boeing 747SP aircraft, modified to carry a 2.5 metre, 17 tonne telescope to altitudes of 14-17 kilometres, above the terrestrial water vapour layer.

The SOFIA is based out of Christchurch for eight weeks a year, to study celestial objects best viewed from the Southern Hemisphere. Observations over this year’s flights out of Christchurch include “targets that are too low to observe or not visible at all from the Northern Hemisphere – including our neighbouring galaxy, the Large Magellanic Cloud, the centre of our own Milky Way galaxy, and Saturn’s moon Titan,” according to NASA.

“In the Southern Hemisphere, the centre of our Milky Way galaxy is almost directly overhead, putting it in a prime location for us to observe it,” said Jim De Buizer, Universities Space Research Association’s SOFIA senior scientist. “We can also see the Magellanic Clouds, which have an environment similar to the early universe, letting us study star formation there as a proxy for what it was like in the early universe.”

Steve and Delwyn were invited on board the SOFIA as special guests on the 22 June flight, along with five others from a variety of organisations across New Zealand, including Air New Zealand.

They joined scientists, astronomers and crew on board the 10-hour, overnight flight.

“It was an opportunity of a lifetime,” said Steve. “I’ve been to telescopes on mountaintops in Chile and Hawaii, but never one in the air. ”

Steve, Delwyn and other guests were given a tour of the aircraft, after being briefed by the crew.
The telescope was the most impressive aspect of the aircraft, said Steve. Once the plane reaches the correct altitude, above the water vapour layer of the atmosphere, “the hatch opens up so the telescope is peering directly into space,” Steve said. “As an aeronautical engineer, I know that it’s no small feat to engineer that setup without compromising the integrity of the airframe – so that the airflow over the opening doesn’t cause turbulence and move the telescope. It has to have pinpoint accuracy.”

The observations recorded by the telescope are what helps us learn more about our universe, the Milky Way galaxy, the origins of stars and the characteristics of galaxies beyond our own.
“From a scientist’s and an engineer’s perspective, it was a privilege to be on board the SOFIA,” said Delwyn. “The construction of the instrumentation was second to none, and the work being done on board is enhancing our understanding of space and celestial bodies.”

In addition to the scientific work on board, Steve also commented on the skill of the pilots. “[The pilots] explained that they sometimes need to be within a few kilometres of a specific location above Earth, within just a few seconds (sometimes it’s a short as two seconds!) to observe a certain event.” For example, he continued, “in order to take measurements of the atmosphere of Jupiter the telescope needs to be in a precise location, at a precise time, when Jupiter passes in front of a certain star, in order to take the measurements.”

Overall, both Steve and Delwyn, commented that they felt honoured to be invited on board the SOFIA, and build a stronger relationship with the team at NASA, as often of the work they do overlaps with ours – finding new ways to collect, process and analyse Earth observation data, and apply those learnings in a way that benefits science, business, government and humanity as a whole.

SOFIA is a Boeing 747SP jetliner modified to carry a 106-inch diameter telescope. It is a joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center, DLR. NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley manages the SOFIA program, science and mission operations in cooperation with the Universities Space Research Association headquartered in Columbia, Maryland, and the German SOFIA Institute (DSI) at the University of Stuttgart. The aircraft is based at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center Hangar 703, in Palmdale, California.

For more information on the NASA SOFIA and the scientific observations being done during its time in New Zealand, visit the SOFIA mission page on the NASA website.