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Our Flying Observatory Goes to New Zealand!

Our Flying Observatory Goes to New Zealand!

Our flying observatory, called SOFIA, carries a 100-inch telescope inside a Boeing 747SP aircraft. Scientists onboard study the life cycle of stars, planets (including Pluto’s atmosphere), the area around black holes and complex molecules in space. 

Heading South


Once each year our flying observatory, SOFIA, its team and instruments travel to the Southern Hemisphere to Christchurch, New Zealand. From there the team studies stars and other objects that cannot be seen while flying in the Northern Hemisphere.

What We Study


We often study star formation in our Milky Way Galaxy. But from the Southern Hemisphere we can also study the lifecycle of stars in two other galaxies called the Magellanic Clouds. The Magallenic Clouds have different materials in them, which changes how stars form in these galaxies. Scientists are studying these differences to better understand how the first stars in our universe formed.  

Home Away from Home


The observatory and its team use the National Science Foundation’s U.S. Antarctic Program facility at Christchurch International Airport. The Antarctic program’s off-season is June and July, so it’s an ideal time for us to use these facilities.

Another Blast of Winter


The Southern Hemisphere’s seasons are opposite from our own. When we are operating from Christchurch in June and July, it’s winter. This means that the nights are very long – ideal for our nighttime observing flights, which last approximately 10 hours.

Light Show


These observations often bring us so far south that the team onboard can see the Southern Lights, also called the Aurora Australis. This is the Southern Hemisphere equivalent of the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, visible near the North Pole. Auroras are caused by particles from space hitting the atmosphere near Earth’s magnetic poles. Our scientists onboard SOFIA don’t study the aurora, but they do enjoy the view.

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