Fly 6,900 miles each way, deploy a cadre of flight and ground crew members along with an international science team for three weeks, and during that time fly three nights per week, 10 hours per flight, all while conducting world-class science. It’s a lot to imagine, and even greater to have accomplished it all.
To meet scientific program goals set earlier this year, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) departed the United States on July 12 for the first leg of its deployment to Christchurch, New Zealand. Having stopped for a flight crew change and some Hawaiian hospitality from the good folks at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam outside of Honolulu, the observatory arrived the following morning at Christchurch where preparations began for the first of nine science missions.
Water vapor in the Earth’s atmosphere is extremely low during the winter months over the southern oceans, thus our decision to base the observatory at Christchurch. Contributing to that decision was the infrastructure provided by the U.S. Antarctic Program, which is operated by the National Science Foundation (NSF) from the Christchurch International Airport. During our deployment, the NSF opened its facilities to us, and they, along with everyone at the Christchurch International Airport, were most gracious hosts.
While we were on New Zealand’s southern island, our team was supported by the U.S. State Department and U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa David Huebner and his staff who are based in Wellington, the capital on the northern island. I’d also like to extend a special note of appreciation to all of the New Zealanders who were very interested in our mission and made our team feel most welcome.
For our flights from Christchurch we planned a series of observations using the German Receiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies (GREAT) that were proposed by a combination of guest astronomy investigators plus members of the GREAT consortium. Developed by a team from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, Bonn, Germany, the GREAT instrument is a spectrometer that detects the wave aspect rather than the particle aspect of infrared light. Among its many other capabilities, GREAT helps astronomers measure the chemical composition of star-forming regions and supernova remnants. For this deployment we spent the majority of our time observing the Milky Way Galaxy’s central regions and its companion dwarf galaxies known as the Magellanic Clouds.
Measuring the chemical composition of the interstellar medium in the Magellanic Clouds enables astronomers to infer conditions right after the “Big Bang” because the material of the clouds has not been recycled through many generations of stars forming and dying. Even though this material has been floating in space for millions of years, it is considered relatively “fresh” and in an unprocessed state. SOFIA’s access to this material means our observatory can, in effect, do cosmology research without the need to make measurements of galaxies billions of light years away. This capability is very exciting to our science staff and the worldwide astronomical community.
SOFIA’s deployment to New Zealand, completed on Aug. 2, was entirely successful and very important to our program. We demonstrated the capability to operate the world’s largest airborne astronomical observatory with high efficiency and reliability, achieving 100 percent of the planned science flights. By all accounts the quality of the scientific data was also outstanding. The international deployment team did an excellent job planning and safely executing every logistical and operational detail, and those of us “left behind” worked hard before and during the deployment to support them. Completing our first scientific deployment is a key accomplishment in our transition to becoming a fully operational observatory.
Congratulations to the entire team for this outstanding achievement. I am very happy to welcome them back home!
Story by Eddie Zavala, NASA SOFIA Program Manager