One of the most expensive aircraft in the world has arrived in Christchurch with some special cargo on board.
The NASA-modified jumbo jet houses a telescope that's capable of making new discoveries in the solar system way above the Southern Hemisphere.
Touching down for a three-week-long scientific mission, NASA's billion-dollar giant flying observatory is about to be deployed over southern skies.
"We've been working on this since the '90s, and this is the first Southern Hemisphere deployment – one of many, we hope," says NASA mission manager Edward Harmon.
The joint US and German mission, called SOFIA, has based itself in Christchurch and plans on undertaking nine flights – not a cheap exercise when the plane costs around $200,000 just to refuel.
"The skies here are so good this time of year, and there are so many interesting objects we can look at the centre of our Milky Way, where there's a massive black hole," says chief scientist Eric Becklin. "We're going to study it in detail on this series of flights."
To do that, the highly modified Boeing 747 has to climb to about 14,000 metres. A hatch on the side of the aircraft is then opened so the telescope can begin its observations.
"The idea is just to get above the water vapour," says Mr Harmon. "The infrared spectrum is not our friend, so we get up above that and it's much clearer for the observatory to see our targets."
Despite the bitterly cold southerly winds, budding local astronomers and plane enthusiasts were keen to catch a glimpse of the jumbo jet and its precious cargo arriving.
"We've always been interested in planes, and often come out to the airport to look at the planes, and heard about this one coming out and it just sounded like a really cool thing to come and watch," says Kerry Andrews.
SOFIA will take the first of her 10-hour observation flights over the Southern Hemisphere on Wednesday.
source: newshub archive