NASA at the North Pole
by Steve Graham, Claire Parkinson, and Mike Comberiate May 21, 1999
    Page 2

Portable Satellite Dish
(left) Chief Scientist Dr. Claire Parkinson operates the ice auger while Webcast Moderator Steve Graham describes the process during a "polar" webcast. (right) Communications Engineer Andre Fortin completes an Iridium phone call from the North Pole.

Artist's rendering of the TDRS-1 satellite.

next Communications and Science


Imagine this: Out in space at an altitude of 22,300 miles, a 16 year—old, 2.5—ton NASA Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS-1) points her 24 Karat gold—plated 16—ft antenna right on the spot where a small group of NASA engineers and scientists have just landed their ski plane on the ice floes (floating sheets of ice) at the North Pole. Quickly they unload the "big blue box" containing their portable ECOMM satellite ground station, connect the video camera, mount the 18-inch "pizza pan" antenna on its tripod, and whip it around to find the TDRS-1 satellite at only 0.9 degrees above the horizon. Suddenly, they're connected to the Internet and students all over the world are participating in a virtual field trip to the North Pole! "What's that you have in your hand?", asks a student from Pennsylvania. "This is an ice auger bit and here's how we are using it to measure the thickness of the ice floes at the North Pole," answers the Chief Scientist. This is outrageous educational outreach, reaching the next generation of our planet's caretakers right on their own computers.

This story–A Spot on the Ice Flow–was featured on NPR's Morning Edition.

  Introduction   Page 1 Page 3
On a recent (April 19-May 2, 1999) trip to the Arctic, personnel from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center chose the North Pole as the unique site from which to demonstrate how new communications technologies and the Internet now make it possible for scientists working in very remote locations to send and receive data using NASA communications satellites. Accompanied by nine other engineers, scientists, and outreach personnel (also from NASA's GSFC), we traveled to Resolute Bay and Eureka, Canada, before heading north to the "top of the world" to broadcast the first ever live webcast from the North Pole. We had two main objectives on this expedition: (1) to demonstrate the new communications technologies that made our live webcasts possible, and (2) to take measurements of various aspects of the Arctic environment.

What is most unique about this expedition is that students from around the world participated in some of our scientific activities via their personal computers. This "virtual field trip" involved the exchange of dialogue from their computers while hearing responses to their questions as they watched live video demonstrations by the expedition team.


Claire Parkinson, Steve Graham, Tim Roberts and students from the Qarmartalik School pause for a picture during a test webcast from the Environment Canada facilities in Resolute Bay.

Communications and Science
During the expedition, we demonstrated three new communications instruments that scientists can use while conducting field experiments: TILT (TDRS Internet Link Terminal), ECOMM (Early Communications), and PORTCOMM (Portable Communications). Each of these new instruments has design advantages and disadvantages. For instance, the TILT system transmits a high-quality signal appropriate for television or World Wide Web broadcasts at the relatively high rate of 1 megabit per second. The ECOMM system also transmits a television and Web broadcast quality signal, but at the much slower rate of 128 kilobits per second. However, at a fraction of the weight of TILT and consuming only one-third the power, ECOMM is much easier to transport for webcasts from remote locations. The PORTCOMM system yields an added communications capability while on the move. While moving in a car, a helicopter, and even a dogsled, we were able to send data files at a rate of 4.8 kilobits per second (again, much slower than the previous system).

All three communication packages were developed at GSFC and use NASA's Tracking and Data Relay Satellite-1 (TDRS-1) to complete the communication links. Launched in 1983, TDRS-1 is currently in a geosynchronous orbit (an orbit in which the orbital velocity of the satellite matches the spin rate of the Earth) that is inclined sufficiently to make it visible to the polar regions of the globe four hours each day, with a maximum elevation of 1.6 degrees above the horizon.

In addition to the communications element, and as an integral component of the expedition, scientific observations and measurements were made. The team collected ozone measurements with a hand-held Microtops photometer provided by Gordon Labow of GSFC Code 916 and Global Positioning System (GPS) measurements with a Trimble GPS Unit provided by Steve Cohen and Erricos Pavlis of GSFC Code 921. Sea ice thickness measurements were made through holes drilled with both powered and manual ice augers. The ozone measurements will be compared with satellite observations made by NASA's Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer (TOMS), as checks on both the Microtops and the satellite data. The GPS measurements from Resolute Bay will be used, in conjunction with additional measurements after several years, to examine glacial rebound, i.e., the uplifting of the land surface in response to the removal of the weight of the Pleistocene ice sheet.

The GPS measurements from the North Pole will be compared with corresponding measurements taken concurrently at the South Pole and in equatorial locations, to allow students to quantify easily the polar flattening of the Earth, i.e., the fact that the distance from the North Pole to the South Pole is less than the equatorial diameter of the Earth. The sea ice thickness measurements are being compared with other Arctic ice thickness measurements made from the surface and from submarines (sonar data). In addition, soil samples were collected, air temperatures were measured, and cloud type and cloud cover observations were recorded in conjunction with the protocols set forth by the Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) program and Elissa Levine of GSFC Code 923. These measurements added a new location for the global atmospheric and soil measuring efforts of the GLOBE program, as students worldwide will compare our data with data from their local schools.

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The TDRS Internet Link Terminal (TILT) inside the radome at the Environment Canada facilities in Resolute Bay.

  From GSFC to the Arctic   Page 2 Page 4

The expedition team departed GSFC in Greenbelt, Maryland on April 19 for Resolute Bay, Canada (75°N, 95°W). Resolute Bay is located on Cornwallis Island in the new Canadian territory of Nunavut. While in Resolute Bay, we worked closely with Principal Shannon Adams, the 6 teachers, and the 70 students of the local K-12 school, called "Qarmartalik" (meaning "land of many sod houses" in the native language of Inuktituk). Expedition leader Mike Comberiate and Chief Scientist Claire Parkinson presented slide shows and lectures to the students and our team's first official webcast was broadcast from the school. For most of the students, it was their first exposure to the Internet. Subsequent webcasts were done from other locations around the town (hamlet), including the adjacent frozen bay, a mountain overlooking the town, and the facilities at Environment Canada. While performing the webcast from the mountain we experienced blizzard conditions with wind chill temperatures in the -50°F range. Consequently, the planned 60-minute webcast was shortened to 20 minutes.


Resolute Bay
The second official webcast was completed out on the ice in Resolute Bay.



A panoramic view of Resolute Bay; population 205.

On April 26 the team departed for Ellesmere Island and the airport at Eureka, Canada (80°N, 86°W), a necessary refueling station for the two DeHavilland DHC-6 "Twin Otter" aircraft that were chartered from Resolute Bay. While in Eureka, we conducted webcasts, performed ozone and soil measurements and were treated to a tour of the Environment Canada weather office by the airport station manager. The next day, five members of the expedition team headed for the North Pole. During a necessary refueling stop at 85°N, 100°W, the expedition team successfully drilled three holes for ice thickness measurements. Data from these and other measurements are currently being analyzed.

Approximately two hours later, and after circling the world three times (we crossed every line of longitude as we circled the pole), the Twin Otter touched down on the ice floes of the Arctic Ocean at 89° 58'N, 69° 41'W, approximately 2.5 miles from the exact North Pole. Soon after landing, a prompt set up of the ECOMM, laptop computers, and video camera enabled a webcast and web chat from the North Pole, a historic first! The live webcast and chat session had to be timed precisely in order to coincide with the short TDRS-1 visibility window.

Twelve hours after the live webcast, the TDRS-1 satellite was over the opposite end of the Earth. Normally used to provide daily Internet connectivity to the South Pole, on that day TDRS-1 provided the only means of making a voice phone call to the South Pole. With an Iridium Satellite telephone at the North Pole and TDRS-1 at the South Pole, the team completed a call from their tent to NOAA and National Science Foundation personnel at the Amundsen-Scott Research Station, located at the South Pole. Also online for this historic phone call were George Morrow, Aqua Project Manager, GLOBE Headquarters representative Vince Hurley, and a GLOBE School in Pennsylvania.

A total of 28 hours were spent in the vicinity of the North Pole. Fortunately, the weather cooperated with us as the wind was mostly calm, visibility was good, and the temperature held steady at -20°F. Since it was springtime in the Arctic, the Sun never set, instead circling the horizon once every 24 hours.

Numerous pressure ridges and leads surrounded our camp, offering evidence that we were not on a stationary ice floe. Our GPS instruments indicated that the ice floe we worked and camped on was moving at approximately three-tenths of a mile per hour. Needless to say, where the Twin Otter dropped us off was not going to be same place where we would be picked up. Once the pilots were in range, our HF radio provided the means of relaying our exact location to them.

While keeping our fingers and toes warm was certainly a challenge, it was even more of a challenge warming the ECOMM, laptop computers, and video equipment to minimal operating temperatures. The same generator that powered our equipment also provided power to heating pads that were placed on top of the sensitive electronics. In some cases, hand and toe warmers were used to keep our camera and laptop batteries from freezing in the extreme temperatures encountered at the North Pole.

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Twin Otter
During the refueling stop at 85°N, the team was able to drill three holes for ice thickness measurements.

  Many watchful eyes in the sky   Page 3 Page 5

During the entire expedition, five polar-orbiting weather satellites were regularly watching and photographing the locations where the field team was working. Data from weather satellites operated by NOAA provided real-time images of the weather and leads in the sea ice for planning the tactical deployment of the fuel cache on a suitable ice floe midway between land's end and the North Pole. NOAA satellite meteorologist Wayne Winston interpreted the NOAA satellite imagery and weather observations collected at Resolute Bay and posted a discussion of the daily weather situation for both the expedition team and students to follow. Additionally, David Walsh and others at the National Ice Center provided near-real-time 550-meter-resolution Operational Linescan System (OLS) imagery from satellites of the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) on a routine basis. They also provided very high-resolution (50 meter) Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) imagery from the Canadian Radarsat satellite. Combined with the Arctic expertise of our pilots, this imagery enabled the team to see through the cloud cover to help us pinpoint the appropriate ice floes to land on.

North Pole

Education and Outreach


High Resolution image from the Canadian Radarsat satellite.

In the weeks leading up to the trip, the expedition team worked closely with Tom Albert and Dr. Bob Gabrys of GSFC's Education Office on the design of the education and webcast plans. Schools selected through the Aqua Project's "You Be the Scientist" program participated in the adventures by interacting with the team via a special webchat during the live webcasts. The webcasts were available to anyone with Internet access, while the chat sessions were restricted to the pre-selected participating schools. Topics of the webcasts included Inuit culture, sea ice, ozone, remote sensing, and satellite technology. During the webcast from the Qarmartalik School, the local Inuit students and students from schools in the United States exchanged information about their respective cultures. The following U.S. schools participated in the live chat sessions: Indian Valley Middle School, Harleysville, PA; Forest Hills High School, Sidman, PA; Brigantine North Middle School, Brigantine, NJ; Red Cloud High School, Pine Ridge, SD; DuVal High School, Greenbelt, MD; Northwest High School, Gaithersburg, MD; Mississippi School for the Deaf, Jackson, MS; and Terry Parker High School, Jacksonville, FL. Other schools from Europe, South America, Asia, and Australia were online at various times as well.

All-in-all, ten webcasts were completed, usually at 22 kilobits per second to allow schools with 28.8 kilobits per second (or higher) modem connections to participate. However, exclusive webcasts were broadcast to San Francisco's Exploratorium on April 24 at 100 kilobits per second and another to GSFC on April 30 at 50 kilobits per second, the latter in concert with the Center's 40th Anniversary celebration. On April 29, Goddard Space Flight Center's Deputy Director William Townsend participated in a live web chat with a select group of students from the Qarmartalik School.

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  Claire Parkinson

Chief Scientist Dr. Claire Parkinson presents a slide show on sea ice at the Qarmartalik School in Resolute Bay.

 The Team   Page 4

The GSFC North Pole 1999 expedition team included Mike Comberiate, Team Leader, Aqua Project, Code 422; Dr. Claire Parkinson, Chief Scientist, Oceans and Ice Branch, Code 971; Andre Fortin, Communications Engineer, Space Network, Code 451, David Beverley, Webmaster/Producer, Aqua Project, Code 422; Chris Morris, Logistics Chief, Aqua Project, Code 422, and Steve Graham, Education Liaison and Webcast Moderator, EOS Project Science Office, Code 900, Raytheon ITSS. In addition to the GSFC personnel, six others rounded out the expedition team; Richard Gamble, Videographer, Columbia, MD; Bill Schmidt, Consulting Engineer, Minneapolis, MN; Joel Berger, Technology Teacher, Indian Valley Middle School, Harleysville, PA; Tim Roberts, Technology Coordinator, Souderton School District, PA; Adam Siegel, Student, Walt Whitman High School, Bethesda, MD; and Tommy White Eyes, Student, Red Cloud High School, Pine Ridge, SD.

History in the making
Five historic milestones were accomplished during the expedition:

  1. The first Internet link to the North Pole, 1930 - 2015 GMT on April 27, 1999.
  2. The first live webcast video from the North Pole, 1945 - 2015 GMT on April 27, 1999.
  3. The first virtual participation by students in NASA Arctic field work via the Internet, including live interactive chats and videos between students worldwide and NASA scientists at 75°N, 80°N, and 90°N.
  4. The first North-Pole-to-South-Pole telephone conversation, 1030-1115 GMT on April 28, 1999. This conference call was coordinated by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center and included the NASA North Pole 1999 Expedition Team, National Science Foundation and NOAA representatives at the South Pole, and representatives from NASA GSFC, Project GLOBE Headquarters, and a GLOBE school in Pennsylvania.
  5. The first placement of a piece of the exact South Pole onto the exact North Pole, in commemoration of Earth Day 1999. This benign example illustrated the impact that humankind can have on the environment. (Expedition leader Mike Comberiate had collected a snow sample from the South Pole on a previous trip and brought the sample with him to the North Pole for this demonstration.)

For more information on NASA's You Be the Scientist Program and an archived collection of the expedition's webcasts and digital pictures, please visit the COOLSpace website at:


NASA team
Back row from left to right: Chris Morris, Joel Berger, Tim Roberts, Claire Parkinson, Adam Siegel, Steve Graham, Dave Beverley, Andre Fortin. Front from left to right: Richard Gamble, Mike Comberiate. Not pictured: Bill Schmidt, Tommy White Eyes.

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