Space telescope touches down

22:30, Jul 14 2013
NEW HOME: Christchurch has been chosen as a southern hemisphere base for Sofia - the stratospheric observatory for infrared astronomy.

The Hubble space telescope's little brother has touched down in Christchurch.

The US$1-million-per-mission United States-German flying telescope landed for the first time in the city shortly after midday today. See pictures here.

It will base itself here for about three weeks.

Sofia - the stratospheric observatory for infrared astronomy - consists of a refrigerated 2.5-metre-diameter telescope inside a 1977 Boeing 747SP, a shortened jumbo jet that had service with United Airlines and, earlier, PanAm.

The programme is a joint venture between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and German space agency DLR (Deutsches Zentrum fuer Luft und Raumfahrt).

Sofia spokesman Nick Veronico said yesterday that the plane was likely to be making winter flights in and out of Christchurch for the next 20 years.


US budget constraints meant that this year there would be no money for public open days and outreach programmes, he said.

"Hopefully, things will change for next year."

Sofia partners were now working on "targets" and their research schedule for their time in Christchurch, he said.

Christchurch has been chosen as a southern hemisphere base because of its often cloud-free night skies and lack of atmospheric haze, its long airport runway and the relatively empty airspace around the South Island.

The city also has a track record of supporting logistically difficult missions.

Operation Deep Freeze and the US Antarctic Programme have been an important part of life at Christchurch Airport since the mid-1950s.

Sofia's NZ$1.2m-a-mission price tag makes it as expensive to operate as the Hubble space telescope itself.

The Press