The US$1-million-per-mission US/German flying telescope SOFIA landed for the first time in the city just after midday today.
SOFIA - the Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy - is a refrigerated 2.5m-diameter telescope inside a 1977 Boeing 747SP, a shortened jumbo jet that had seen service with United Airlines and, earlier, PanAm.
SOFIA is the only airborne telescope in the world, and the programme is a joint venture between NASA and German space agency DLR. The plane was likely to be making winter flights in and out of Christchurch for the next 20 years. It will base itself here for about three weeks, but budget constraints meant that this year there would be no money for public open days and outreach programmes.
Christchurch was chosen as a southern hemisphere base because of its often cloud-free night skies and lack of atmospheric haze, its long airport runway and the relatively empty airspace around the South Island. The city also has a track record of supporting logistically difficult missions: Operation Deep Freeze and the US Antarctic Programme have been an important part of life at Christchurch Airport since the mid-1950s.
SOFIA's NZ$1.2m-per-mission price tag makes it as expensive to operate as the Hubble space telescope itself.
But how does it work?
Well, by sending an infrared telescope to altitudes of 12,000m (40,000ft) and higher, NASA and DLR conduct astronomical research that would be impossible using telescopes based on Earth. Infrared imaging of stars and planets is difficult from ground-based observatories, because water vapour in Earth's lower atmosphere blocks most infrared radiation. SOFIA operates by soaring above occluding vapour, to capture infrared emissions from distant galaxies. Using instruments that include a high-speed imager and a sensitive far-infrared spectrometer, SOFIA will provide insights into distant star formation, chemical composition of deep space, and atmospheres of planets within our own solar system.