Christchurch has been chosen as the base for the next 20 years for a joint US and German project involving an airborne infrared telescope.
The telescope operates from the back of a converted jumbo jet and will be used to observe the Milky Way galaxy, starting with a series of flights during the next three weeks.
Known as the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), the project is a joint venture between NASA and German space agency DLR.
Chief scientist Eric Becklin says the aim is to get a better understanding of how stars are formed and how the earth was created.
He says fitting a telescope behind retractable doors in the back of a former passenger aircraft involved a major feat of engineering.
The German scientist who helped design and build the telescope, Urs Graf, says because it uses infrared technology, it can only be used at an altitude of 40,000 feet, where its perception is not obscured by water vapour.
Dr Graf says Christchurch was chosen as the project's long-term base because of the facilities already available there courtesy of the US Antarctic programme.