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NASA in Alaska 2014: A Pilot’s Life at 65,000 Feet over Alaska

July 28th, 2014 by Valerie Casasanto

As the ER-2 pilot got ready for his first flight out of Fairbanks, I wondered what it’s like piloting the aircraft, all by himself, 65,000 feet up.

Denis Steele sets up a video camera in the cockpit of the ER-2, 65,000 feet over Alaska's southern mountains.

Denis Steele sets up a video camera in the cockpit of the ER-2, 65,000 feet over Alaskan mountains and glaciers. (Credit: Denis Steele/NASA)

The NASA ER-2 pilots for this campaign, Tim Williams and Denis Steele, are flying the MABEL instrument to study the glaciers and ice sheets. Before they fly, they have to get suited up. It’s quite a process. Because the altitude is so high, they need to wear pressure suits. I talked with expert NASA engineer technicians Raul Cortes and Ryan Ragsdale, who are veterans in testing equipment and prepping pilots before a flight to ensure safety.

The involved process starts the day before a flight, when Cortes and Ragsdale prepare the pressure suit. They check the pressure and make sure there are no leaks in the gloves, body suit, and helmet. They put the whole system together and inflate it, like a giant balloon character, to test that the suit will properly pressurize.

Engineer Technician Ryan Ragsdale of NASA Dryden inflates the pressure suit the day before to make sure there are no leaks. (No, there is not a real person in there!). (Credit: Valerie Casasanto/NASA)

Engineer Technician Ryan Ragsdale of NASA Dryden inflates the pressure suit the day before to make sure there are no leaks. (No, there is not a real person in there!). (Credit: Valerie Casasanto/NASA)

When a pilot puts on the suit, it’s bulky and stiff, so it’s difficult to work in. And it’s difficult to eat in. During the long flights, pilots eat and drink out of a straw.

The food is the consistency of pudding, and the straw feeds through a small hole in the helmet of their pressure suit. I asked what was on the menu for one flight. They have a choice that includes beef stroganoff, pears, caffeinated chocolate pudding (which happens to be Cortes’ and ER-2 crew member Luis Rios’ favorite). I was curious about this chocolate pudding, but given a free sample of the “pears” — which tasted like part baby food, part applesauce, with a pear afternote.

Pears in a tube. (Credit: Valerie Casasanto/NASA)

Pears in a tube. (Credit: Valerie Casasanto/NASA)

The caffeinated chocolate pudding used to be Williams’ favorite until he switched to the caffeinated apple pie. Mmmm, wonder if there are crusts in there too. When Steele first started flying, he ate the tube food. But sometimes it would get messy. One time a pilot was heating up a “sloppy joe” tube and it accidentally squirted out all over the cockpit. Now Steele just drinks water. You can easily dehydrate up there since you are breathing pure oxygen.

I thought it must be pretty confining in that suit with not much room to move, so talked with the Steele and Williams to see what the space is like for their 8-hour journey. The cockpit seemed to be about the size of half of a bob sled. Or, according to Steele, “if you throw a blanket over your head and body and lift your arms out a little, it’s that area between you and the blanket.” Just a little bit of room to move around, and a bit of leg room (unless a pilot is really tall). However, it doesn’t feel claustrophobic, Williams said, because they have good visibility.

Engineer Technician Ryan Ragsdale, of NASA Dryden, inflates the pressure suit the day before to make sure there are no leaks. (No, there is not a real person in there!). Credit: Valerie Casasanto/NASA

The ER-2’s cockpit, with little room for movement. Credit: Valerie Casasanto/NASA

When they’re up in the stratosphere, pilots keep a close watch on the plane’s instruments, Steele said. “You are always thinking – watching the instruments, doing science, mental math, calculations, thinking about what you would do in an emergency situation.”

They even do puzzles. On one flight last week Williams did Sudoku to keep entertained. You can also plug in to play music, although there are stories of colleagues playing tricks on the pilots, and programing in Disney music prior to flight.

Long flights at high altitudes do have effects, Steele said, and pilots need to be careful and not exercise too much after they land.

 Ryan Ragsdale carries empty water bottles and pilot’s helmet back to hangar after a long day’s flight. (Credit: Valerie Casasanto/NASA)


Ryan Ragsdale carries empty water bottles and pilot’s helmet back to hangar after a long day’s flight. (Credit: Valerie Casasanto/NASA)

“Being at 60,000 ft. does drain you, especially if you are working hard,” he said. “The time you are working hardest is when you take off and land. The pilot does a lot of movements to keep the plane stable at low altitudes. It wears you out. But you get used to it, it’s like driving a car!”

NASA in Alaska 2014: MABEL readied to snap photos from above

July 15th, 2014 by Kate Ramsayer

Clouds blanketed much of MABEL’s potential flight routes over the Alaskan Arctic or southern glaciers on Monday, so the ER-2 aircraft stayed in the hangar at Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks, Alaska.

But the MABEL team was busy. They took advantage of a day on the ground by improving the instrument’s new camera. The goal is to take more images like the one below, to help scientists interpret the data from the airborne lidar instrument.

As the ER-2 aircraft traveled from Palmdale, California, to Fairbanks, Alaska, the camera on MABEL took this shot of wind turbines near Bakersfield, California. (Credit: NASA)

As the ER-2 aircraft traveled from Palmdale, California, to Fairbanks, Alaska, the camera on MABEL took this shot of wind turbines near Bakersfield, California. (Credit: NASA)

It’s the first week of the summer 2014 campaign for MABEL, or the Multiple Altimeter Beam Experimental Lidar, the ICESat-2 satellite’s airborne test instrument. MABEL measures the height of Earth below using lasers and photon-counting devices. This year, the team is using a new camera system to take snapshots of the land, ice and water in parallel with MABEL’s measurements.

The MABEL instrument is nestled snug in the nose cone of the high-altitude ER-2, which has a circular window in the base where the laser and the camera view the ground. To get access to MABEL and the camera, the crew propped up the nose and wheeled it away from the aircraft.

The ER-2 crew rolls the aircraft's nose -- containing MABEL -- away from its body, so engineers could work on the instrument. (Credit: Kate Ramsayer)

The ER-2 crew rolls the aircraft’s nose — containing MABEL — away from its body, so engineers could work on the instrument. (Credit: Kate Ramsayer/NASA)

The team then carefully slid the instrument out onto a cart, so that MABEL’s on-site engineer and programmer – Eugenia DeMarco and Dan Reed – could work on the camera and ensure the connections were sound.

MABEL engineer Eugenia DeMarco and programmer Dan Reed work on improving the new camera system for the instrument. (Credit: Kate Ramsayer/NASA)

MABEL engineer Eugenia DeMarco and programmer Dan Reed work on improving the new camera system for the instrument. (Credit: Kate Ramsayer/NASA)

When the camera was set to document the terrain from 65,000 feet, the team slid MABEL back to its spot and wheeled the aircraft’s nose back to the rest of its body. They connected the instrument to the plane’s electronics, sealed the plane back up, and are ready to go whenever the weather cooperates.

Luis Rios, with NASA's ER-2 crew, checks the connections between the MABEL instrument and the aircraft. (Credit: Kate Ramsayer/NASA)

Luis Rios, with NASA’s ER-2 crew, checks the connections between the MABEL instrument and the aircraft. (Credit: Kate Ramsayer/NASA)

 

NASA in Alaska 2014: NASA’s Alaska Forest Survey Kicks Off

July 14th, 2014 by Kathryn Hansen

From early July through mid-August 2014, scientist Doug Morton of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, will be flying low over the treetops of interior Alaska. The purpose? First-of-a-kind look at the state’s forests with a portable, airborne imaging system called G-LiHT to map the composition, structure and function of the ecosystem.

According to Morton, key components of the fieldwork include:

“First, we are partnering with the U.S. Forest Service, as directed by the recently-passed Farm Bill, to incorporate remote sensing technology into forest monitoring efforts. Our pilot study will be the first inventory of forests in interior Alaska; a standard ground inventory (as in the lower 48) has always been too costly or logistically challenging to implement.

Second, we will study post-fire recovery, with plans to sample more than 80 percent of all fires in the Tanana region since 1950.  Fire is the major agent of change in interior Alaska, and understanding the patterns of forest recovery is essential to gauge the vulnerability/resilience of forests to future climate change.

Third, we will benchmark conditions (topography/permafrost, forest cover, forest composition) across a large portion of the Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE) science domain.”

Follow Morton through the summer as, Internet connection permitting, he sends updates and photos from the field.

 

 

NASA in Alaska 2014: MABEL: Welcome to Fairbanks!

July 14th, 2014 by Kate Ramsayer

Very few people get to fly 65,000 feet above Alaska’s glaciers. And even fewer get to fly over ones they share a name with. But on Friday, as pilot Denis Steele flew NASA’s ER-2 aircraft from Palmdale, California, to Fairbanks, Alaska, he snapped a picture of the scenery below – including Steele Glacier in the southwestern corner of Canada’s Yukon territory.

From NASA's ER-2 aircraft, pilot Denis Steele saw glaciers in southern Alaska and Canada -- including the Steele Glacier, in the center of the image, and the Donjek Glacier (lower right). (Credit: Denis Steele)

From NASA’s ER-2 aircraft, pilot Denis Steele saw glaciers in southern Alaska and Canada — including the Steele Glacier, the horizontal feature in the center of the image, and the Donjek Glacier (lower right). (Credit: Denis Steele)

Steele and the ER-2 team, along with NASA scientists, engineers and others, are here in Fairbanks to fly a laser altimeter – MABEL, or Multiple Altimeter Beam Experimental Lidar – over melting summer sea ice, glaciers and more. It’s a campaign to see what these polar regions will look like with data from ICESat-2, once the satellite launches and starts collecting data about the height of Earth below. Gathering information now allows scientists to get a head start in developing the computer programs scientists will need to analyze ICESat-2’s raw data.

MABEL and other lidar instruments are flying on the ER-2, which provides a high-altitude perspective. In the next three weeks, the plan is to cover melting sea ice, glaciers, vegetation, lakes, and more.

Steele wasn’t the only one looking out of the plane windows on flights north. Kelly Brunt, a research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, spotted a wildfire in Eastern Washington. The fire, burning in steep terrain, resembled an erupting volcano.

A wildfire burns in Washington, just east of the Cascades. (Credit: Kelly Brunt)

A wildfire burns in Washington, just east of the Cascades. (Credit: Kelly Brunt)

Over the weekend, the team settled into Fairbanks and a hangar at the U.S. Army’s Fort Wainwright, downloading data from the transit flight and ensuring the instruments are ready to fly when the weather allows. Cloudy skies over key sites means the ER-2 won’t fly today (Monday), but the team will check the weather tonight and see if it clears enough to fly the first science flight on Tuesday.

Want to follow MABEL and the ER-2? Check back here, and also check NASA’s flight tracker: http://airbornescience.nasa.gov/tracker/

Yep, we're in Alaska! A moose along a road east of Fairbanks. I'll call her Mabel. (Credit: Kate Ramsayer)

Yep, we’re in Alaska! A moose along a road east of Fairbanks. I’ll call her Mabel. (Credit: Kate Ramsayer)

South Pacific Bio-optics Cruise 2014: Societal Benefits of Ocean Color

May 10th, 2014 by Aimee Neeley

My apologies for the gap between blog posts.  My day job has been pretty busy.  And even though the NASA folks have already arrived safely to Tahiti as of May 5,  2014, I thought it was fitting to have one last blog post. We have talked a lot about ocean biogeochemical sampling, ocean chemistry, and ocean color radiometry.  It is also important to touch on the societal benefits that ocean color radiometry can provide.

In 2007, the  International Ocean-Colour Coordinating Group or IOCCG published a report and an additional brochure entitled: “Why Ocean Colour?  The Societal Benefits of Ocean-Colour Technology” and “Why Ocean Colour.”  I will not go into all of the information detailed in each document here (though feel free to follow the links below at your leisure.)

IOCCG reports

IOCCG reports

A number of critical uses for ocean color are of particular importance in today’s society. For instance, detection of high algal biomass can indicate the location of potential fishing zone.  Fish that eat algae or fish that eat fish that eat algae (did you get all of that?) will be en masse in these blooms.  Inter-annual variation in timing and extent of phytoplankton blooms can also affect the survival of larval fish.  Satellite imagery can be used to monitor this variation.  Moreover, satellite derived sea surface temperature (SST) and wave height information can help aquaculture developers plan where to establish new fish farms.  Satellite imagery can be used to detect and monitor blooms of harmful algae, algae (phytoplankton) that ether produce toxins or can clog the gills of fish and invertebrates because of high biomass.

Harmful Algae Bloom in Lake Erie  http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/hazards/hab/

Harmful Algae Bloom in Lake Erie
http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/hazards/hab/

Satellite ocean color imagery is also very important for monitoring delicate ecosystems, particularly in global coastal environments.  For example, the European Space Agency (ESA) has developed a program called CoastWatch that helps scientists harness the power of satellite imagery for monitoring water quality in shipping channels and coastal environments.  The Medium Resolution Imaging Spectrometer (MERIS) on the Envisat platform (similar to NASA’s MODIS instruments) can be used to monitor sediment deposition onto coral reefs, which can smother the corals.  The imagery can also be used to monitor water quality in shipping channels after dredging.  Dredging can increase suspended sediments and negatively affect water quality.

MERIS image: sediments flowing onto reef http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Observing_the_Earth/ESA_s_sharp_eyes_on_coastal_waters

MERIS image: sediments flowing onto the Great Barrier reef in Australia
http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Observing_the_Earth/ESA_s_sharp_eyes_on_coastal_waters

Let’s consider a recent ecological disaster: the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill has been called the ‘worst oil spill in U.S. history’. The oil spill resulted from an oil platform explosion that occurred on April 20, 2010, and leaked an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil by the time it was capped on July 15, 2010.  This type of disaster can have long-term impacts on coastal wildlife and fisheries.  Immediately following the spill, fishing areas around the Gulf Coast were closed to prevent human exposure to dangerous chemicals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, found in the oil.  These chemicals are known to cause cancer. The fisheries were deemed safe and reopened on April 19, 2011.

Oil in the marshes of the Mississippi Delta  http://ocean.si.edu/gulf-oil-spill

Oil in the marshes of the Mississippi Delta
http://ocean.si.edu/gulf-oil-spill

Dolphins swimming through the oil patches from the Deepwater Horizon spill http://ocean.si.edu/gulf-oil-spill

Dolphins swimming through the oil patches from the Deepwater Horizon spill
http://ocean.si.edu/gulf-oil-spill

Satellite ocean color imagery can be used to locate and monitor oil spills of this magnitude.  Although this type of imagery is complex, the technology is a great asset.  The video below, developed by video producers here at NASA Goddard, shows a timeline of NASA MODIS satellite images. Such imagery allowed scientists to follow the track of the oil slicks.  These images can help us prepare for the impact of these disasters when we know where it is headed next.  You can find satellite images of the oil spill here.

 

Satellite image of oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico following the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon platform  http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/imagegallery/image_feature_1649.html

Satellite image of oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico following the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon platform
http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/imagegallery/image_feature_1649.html

We have truly enjoyed sharing our experiences with all the blog readers.  I hope we can do this again very soon.  Until next time, make sure you check out all of the NASA field campaigns here at the Earth Observatory website.

http://www.ioccg.org/reports/report7.pdf

http://www.ioccg.org/reports/WOC_brochure.pdf

http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Observing_the_Earth/ESA_s_sharp_eyes_on_coastal_waters

http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Observing_the_Earth/New_ESA_project_supports_aquaculture

http://ocean.si.edu/gulf-oil-spill

http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/oil-spill-video.html

http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/oilspill/index.html

http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/hazards/hab/

Notes from the Field