Introduction: Experiencing SOFIA’s Southern Deployment 2018 in Christchurch

Suppose you were shooting at a target moving from your left to your right at 100,000 kilometers per hour with a bullet traveling at 950 kilometers per hour.

Substitute “shooting a target” for “aiming to witness a stellar occultation” and “a bullet” for “an aircraft,” and you roughly get one of the most challenging missions NASA’s flying telescope – Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy commonly known as SOFIA – has conducted to date.

If you are wondering what a stellar occultation is, don’t worry. Prior to coming to New Zealand to spend some time with the SOFIA team, I had no idea what it was either.

NASA SOFIA at Christchurch Airport

During my time here, I was lucky enough to take a ground tour of the aircraft at its “second home” in Christchurch to see it up close.

My visit also coincided with a talk at Ara Institute of Canterbury where members in a variety of positions within the SOFIA team shared their first hand experiences of working on the project. And, that is where I had the chance to hear the story of the MU69 occultation mission I briefly mentioned in the beginning, directly from that flight’s mission director, Karina Leppik.

Ara Institute of Canterbury SOFIA Talk

Finally, I also had a chance to join an actual mission flown by SOFIA to learn about the project even further and to see the team in action. We took off shortly after 8:30PM on Tuesday, flew across the date line briefly into Monday, and then landed back in Christchurch on Wednesday morning around 6:30AM.

NASA SOFIA Flight Deck

While I always found SOFIA to be a fascinating project (especially as someone that loves the 747SP), after seeing its operations up close, I was left speechless.

I was amazed with what the 747 is capable of. With the science the aircraft is doing. And, first and foremost, amazed by the team of passionate and dedicated people whose concerted effort makes the project possible.


Over the next coming weeks, I will be processing all the photos, videos, and notes I took and publishing a series of articles about the program as well as an extensive report about the exciting flight, so stay tuned.

Also, if you are interested in learning about the MU69 occultation, make sure to check this article on NASA’s blog.

I’ll end the introduction here, but before signing off…

I want to thank everyone involved in making this incredible experience possible.

Especially, I would like to thank everyone on the SOFIA team for going above and beyond in making sure that I had an unforgettable experience while visiting them and that I got all the necessary photos and other materials to put the upcoming articles together.

This is the first article in a four-part series detailing the history and operations of the world’s largest airborne observatory, Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy also known as SOFIA. The following articles are included in the series:

  1. Introduction: Experiencing SOFIA’s Southern Deployment 2018 in Christchurch – An introduction to the series giving an overview about my experiences with SOFIA.
  2. From a Learjet to SOFIA: A Brief History of the World’s Largest Flying Telescope – A brief look at the history of airborne astronomy and a look at how SOFIA came to be.
  3. “Per Aspera Ad Astra:” The Complexities of Operating SOFIA – A detailed look at the variety of teams involved in the operation of SOFIA and the challenges faced by them.
  4. NASA 747, Cleared for Take-Off: Observing a SOFIA Mission – A briefing-to-landing account of my flight onboard SOFIA.

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