NASA plane ready to explore Chch skies

Chief scientist fronts $80 million project

JODY O'CALLAGHAN
Last updated 16:26 15/07/2013
Nasa Sofia scientist Eric Becklin

PIONEER: Chief science adviser Eric Becklin has been Sofia's chief scientist since 1996.

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A NASA plane that will make Christchurch its home for the next three weeks while scientists study the space above it operates on a US$80 million annual budget.

Scientists from NASA and German space agency DLR have joined forces to create the largest airborne observatory in the world, Sofia. It has come to Christchurch due to its clear Southern Hemisphere skies, ''dry'' winters, good flying conditions, and airport infrastructure.

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.

Chief science adviser Eric Becklin said Sofia would visit Christchurch every year for the next 20 years, beginning with nine 10-hour flights this trip.

Scientists would be looking at the molecules in space, particularly in the milky way, to see how stars and planets are formed.

''Our Southern deployments are very important. It's a beautiful place to work out of,'' Becklin said.

Becklin, from California, has been Sofia's chief scientist since 1996 and is internationally recognised for his pioneering work around infrared astronomy.

He and Gerry Neugebauer discovered an exceptionally bright star in the Orion in 1966, known now as the Becklin-Neugebauer Object. Becklin was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2009.

For now, Christchurch will host his next discovery.

''There is going to be new information about what's out there for sure,'' Becklin said.

The first flight will leave on Wednesday, with 20-25 crew members on board. One flight alone costs US$1 million.

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