College boys board flying SOFIA observatory

01 Aug 2022

Six College boys and Physics teacher Dr Andrew Taylor – via a special invitation – have been given a tour of NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), an engineering marvel and fusion of innovation, aviation, and scientific exploration.

The largest airborne observatory based on a Boeing 747SP aircraft, SOFIA has been developed in a joint project by NASA and the German Aerospace Centre (DLR).

The SOFIA crew and aircraft – normally based out of Palmdale, California – have landed in Christchurch every winter since 2013 (except for 2020/21 because of Covid-19 restrictions). However, this winter’s deployment is the team’s seventh – and final – sortie south before the aircraft is decommissioned.

Tim Wang, Yusef Elnahas, Alan Viles, Elliott Grey, Sam Cross, and Angus Whitteker have been fortunate to be shown around the interior of the highly modified aircraft, which includes a 2.7m reflecting telescope in the rear.

With the telescope, scientists can observe the infrared universe as many objects in space emit most energy in infrared wavelengths that are invisible to the naked eye. By having the telescope onboard, scientists can avoid 99% of infrared-absorbing water vapour in the atmosphere to secure better views.

After talking to the scientists, the boys have discovered that the team heads south because our winters are particularly dry, with fewer daylight hours. The aircraft undertakes missions after sunset, returning before sunrise.

In the past, the team detected the first type of ion that formed the universe and spotted water on sunlit sections of the moon. This year, the team hoped to observe the effect of magnetic fields on star formation. However, the final mission was cut short because of storm damage.

For the boys, it has been a fantastic opportunity to meet the SOFIA team and learn about the fascinating technology that has powered the scientists of the world.

– Yusef Elnahas and Elliott Grey