SOFIA makes last flight via Christchurch

NASA’s SOFIA flying telescope made one last flight over Christchurch today before it finally leaves the city.

The SOFIA flight crew made a test flight over the city from around 12:30 on Monday to check the aircraft after the last repairs.

The flight schedule meant residents across the city and parts of the South Island could see and definitely hear the legendary 747SP fly overhead.

The flyover went from Sumner to Cathedral Square, via Hagley Park and back to Christchurch Airport.

SOFIA will then leave town for good around noon on Thursday, when the crew sets off on their way home to California via Hawaii.

For 10 years, the plane has been helping scientists collect data that would be missed by a ground-based telescope – but it has been shut down as new technology replaces it.

NASA project scientist for the SOFIA mission Naseem Rangwala said Ōtautahi has become a second home for the California-based aircraft.

“Christchurch has played a big part in the scientific success of SOFIA and will always do so. Our team has formed very deep friendships and relationships with the people of Christchurch,” she said.

This was SOFIA’s seventh trip here, where she would spend 32 nights above ground.

Making 10-hour journeys at a time, the plane flies over 39,000 feet to surpass 99 percent of Earth’s infrared-blocking atmosphere.

The recent final mission particularly focused on mapping magnetic fields in the Milky Way – something made possible by the local climate – among a range of other celestial phenomena.

“Also, the reason we come to New Zealand is because the air is much drier, so our scientists, our astronomers love to fly out of New Zealand.”

Rose Swears, a Rocket Lab scientist and former NASA intern, is one of the lucky few to take part in the last mission.

“I’m so excited to be on board and I’m so excited to fly because everyone wants to do it,” she said.

She said SOFIA is a unique piece of technology.

“Usually the atmosphere and pollution gets in the way, but SOFIA gets over it. It’s amazing that we can fly out of Christchurch and see things that are so far out in space.”

Another of the few to visit the plane recently was Sophie Ineson, a 14-year-old space fanatic from Dunedin.

“It’s just so overwhelming to be here,” she said.

“It’s just incredible to see all the things that go on behind the scenes.”

She was discovered by the US Embassy after campaigning to educate more girls about career paths in space.

“I wrote to the Prime Minister that we need more Kiwi mentors, female mentors for younger children, for space and science in general.”

She said the trip to SOFIA sparked her enthusiasm for a career in science communication.

Rangwala said it was a bittersweet final departure for staff who have completed hundreds of missions with SOFIA.

“We will celebrate 10 years of very successful scientific activities on this unique, complex and amazing platform. We will cheer together and hold hands and we will say goodbye to SOFIA.”

SOFIA will now return to California for its final months of operation through October 1st.

-RNZ and Star News

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