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Astrobiology in New Zealand

A first encounter with SOFIA

7 Jul 2016, 08:59 UTC
A first encounter with SOFIA
(200 words excerpt, click title or image to see full post)

I cannot perceive the scale of the universe, but I can perceive the scale of a jumbo jet as I stand beneath it. I’m on the tarmac, surrounded by fuel trucks, wearing a high-vis vest and Aviation Security Service identification tag that says “escort required”. I want to touch something, perhaps a wheel, but I don’t think I should.

I follow Eric Becklin up the stairs. He’s Emeritus Professor of Experimental Astrophysics at UCLA. He has a star named after him. I’ve never met anyone who has a star named after them. It’s the Becklin-Neugerbauer Object. I haven’t heard of it.
The plane has seatbelt and no smoking signs, emergency exits, small oval windows with plastic shades and a single aeroplane toilet. Seats with seatbelts positioned in front of computers. Walls covered with wires and plastic that looks like yellow cellophane. Displays with lights. Mysterious instruments. Sinister cylinders with flexible metal pipes. Liquid helium. It’s the most dangerous part of the on-ground operation, handling liquid helium. I’m carrying a heavy bag with a laptop, and a bulky camera. I’m worried I might bump into something.

We stand beside a 6.4 metre bulkhead that can resist half a million pounds of ...

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