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Notes from the Field

Karibu! Welcome! I just returned from a training in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, after an incredible week focused on using satellite data to better understand complex watershed dynamics and manage water resources. Referred to as Dar by locals, Tanzania’s largest city sits on the tropical east coast of Africa and is full of salty sea smells and friendly people. Our SERVIR colleagues from the Regional Centre for Mapping of Resources for Development (RCMRD) and I spent a full 5 days with Tanzanian water resources managers from the Rufiji Basin, Wami-Ruvu Basin, and other offices focused on…you guessed it…water. 


My colleagues from RCMRD and I shared the labor in teaching on different modules designed to build on one another with each day (Top left: Calvince Wara, Top right: Denis Macharia, Bottom: Andi Thomas, Behind the Camera: Felix Kasiti).

Flowing from the Eastern Arc Mountains, the Rufiji river basin is one of the largest in East Africa and where most of Tanzania’s agriculture grows. The Wami-Ruvu basin is where Tanzania’s largest urban centers (including Dar) and industrial complexes are concentrated, but you will also find agricultural fields. Both basins are vulnerable to environmental factors that affect water quantity and quality. Examples include increased water demand from population growth, pollution from industrial and agricultural runoff, and uncertainty in rainfall patterns as our climate changes. With NASA’s freely-available satellite data, hydrologists can measure streamflow at a given place and time, and estimate discharge using different hydrologic models. 

These predictions support sustainable water management, as other factors change in and around the basin. In Tanzania, the long rains are from March to June while the short rains are from October to December. As our climate changes, Tanzania experiences high and low extremes with intense drought or floods with the changing of seasons. These anomalies threaten agricultural production and livelihoods in the region as populations grow, pollution increases, and natural disasters are more devastating. Monitoring and modeling water resources can help to plan ahead and respond more efficiently. 


Dar es Salaam is a fishing community on the coast. Fishermen park their boats along the shoreline after a long day of fishing while the night fishermen prepare to leave at sunset.

One of the goals of the SERVIR program is to build capacity to use satellite data in the regions we work in by training the trainers with tools, products, and services that aid in environmental management. For this training, we used a common hydrological model– the Variable Infiltration Capacity (VIC) model– to estimate streamflow. Over five days, the intensive training covered the entire modeling process for VIC– from data access and preparation to model run, calibration, and interpretation. 

As a result of this workshop, stakeholders are equipped to return to their offices and replicate the process for different sub-basins. Estimating discharge over time with satellite data will save resources and allow hydrologists in the region to better understand long-term basin characteristics for improved management practices.

Here is our “Hollywood Selfie”  of some of the participants and trainers.

One last photo before I leave you. Here we are outside of the hotel, just before our last meal together. I cannot wait to meet again someday!


In Search of a New Home Across the Frozen Sea

September 30th, 2019 by By Nathan Kurtz

The Polarstern, pictured here in 2015, is the research icebreaker on which scientists in September 2019 embarked on the MOSAiC expedition. Credit: Alfred-Wegener-Institut / Mario Hoppmann (CC-BY 4.0) 

Ten days ago the Polarstern set sail from Tromsø, traversing the remote Kara and Barents Seas and crossing just north of the islands of Novaya Zemlya and Severnaya Zemlya. These days in the ice-free seas were filled with preparation work such as moving cargo for staging on the ice, readying equipment, discussing work plans, and perhaps most importantly: getting to know all the people I now live and work with quite closely every day. Much like the ups and downs of the waves in the ocean, the journey has had its share of each. The low point most surely being a few days of sea sickness which was quite debilitating, though not actually as bad as I had feared before the trip.

We entered the Arctic sea ice pack a bit east of Severnaya Zemlya in search of seismic instruments deployed a year ago on the ocean floor. The ship’s feed of satellite data told us the concentration of ice in the area and as we drew near the ship came alive with excitement as people gathered to see the first ice of the expedition. The ice that we saw was at first just a few scattered floes, mainly ice that had barely survived the summer melting season. But this gave way to areas filled with second year ice covered with snow and a dazzling array of beautiful ice types that represent the early stages of new ice growth. Some examples included large pockets of slush which made the ocean look like a thick soup as well as small patches of pancake ice which are circular pieces of ice just a few feet across. It was quite a profound moment to see the ice from the ship for the first time, but particularly so for some people in our group who had never seen sea ice in person before.

After picking up the seismic instruments we began our transit into the much more concentrated area of the pack ice in the central Arctic Ocean. Our target was an area around 85 degrees latitude and 135 degrees longitude, here the Transpolar Drift takes sea ice towards Greenland and the Fram Strait over the course of the year and an analysis of past sea ice drift trajectories showed this should be the optimal place to find a floe that meets our numerous scientific and logistical requirements. For me, the transit through the main pack ice on the ship was an extraordinary and unique experience compared to how I have seen and worked on the ice in the past. Much of my work uses satellite data (most recently from NASA’s ICESat-2 mission launched just last year) to determine sea ice thickness, and I have also flown many times over the Arctic ice as part of NASA’s Operation IceBridge mission. That work gives me a very high level view of the ice. For example, I can use satellite data to create a map of Arctic sea ice thickness to see large-scale properties such as where the ice is thick and thin, and see changes from year to year.

But viewing the ice from the ship is quite different, the intricate details and variability of the ice becoming the dominating factor as ice is viewed from just a few feet away, and the vastness of the area is brought into more human scales as we travel around at much slower speeds than a plane or satellite flies. This change in perspective allows me to again see the Arctic not as some small place on a map with the ice having a thickness which changes rather smoothly over large distance, but as a quite vast and remote area with enormous variability. It is this merging of perspectives and (soon) data, from the ground level up to the satellite level that I will use to add to our collective knowledge of the Arctic sea ice pack and contribute to the understanding of the large changes which are occurring to it. In trying to grasp the enormity of the changes which are occurring, a stark thought came to my mind while viewing the ice from off the side of the ship. The thought that when my children reach my age it is unlikely they will be able to witness what I am seeing right now, because it is likely by then that much of the Arctic Ocean will be free of sea ice at the end of the summer melt season.

Now we’ve come close to our target area and have embarked on a search for our “home” for the next year. That home is an ice floe which has just the right characteristics of size, thickness, and representativeness to support the huge suite of scientific instruments and projects that comprise MOSAiC. Several potential floes have been identified from satellite data, but until we deploy people on the ground to measure the thickness of the ice it is uncertain which one would we should choose. Today we investigated a candidate floe with a more extensive survey team. I got to join one of the teams setting out a navigation system for the floes. Since the ice is constantly drifting we don’t want to use just simple latitude/longitude coordinates from GPS, but rather to transform that data to a reference frame that moves along with the floe itself. My job on this particular excursion was not scientific, but serving as a polar bear guard. While I never imagined my career as a scientist would take me in this line of work, I’m thankful we were provided good training such that I could feel up to the task and contribute to the work on the ice today.

Being able to set foot on the ice floe and leaving the comfort of the ship was a humbling experience. This strange and dangerous place where no human had likely set foot before. An area seemingly frozen in time as the sun completes a dying circle around the horizon, setting ever sooner each day and giving way to the endless polar night over the course of the next week. But many changes are actually happening here in the Arctic and to the ice. They can be hard to see with human eyes at times, so we’ll continue searching for our new home until we find a place to set up our sensitive equipment to see better what is happening in the ocean, on the ice, and in the atmosphere.

Knock, Knock, Knocking on BITSE’s Door

September 25th, 2019 by Lina Tran

Jason Budinoff, an aerospace engineer, cocked his head, listening for the sound of metal on metal. “Can you hear it?” someone asked. The room quieted, and a soft, tinny buzz whined from the instrument at the center of the crowd. Inside, a small electric motor was spinning. 

It was three weeks before launch, and the BITSE team was testing the door on their instrument, which was almost ready for its balloon flight to the top of the sky. Eventually, BITSE successfully flew on Sept. 18. But the work toward its launch started a couple years earlier — and continued with tests of each detail up to the very last weeks before launch. One key element: the door.

Slightly larger than a pie, BITSE’s door works like the lens cap on a camera to protect the instrument’s sensitive optics. Instead of scratches, it shielded BITSE from dust and bugs that could fly in during ascent. Once it climbed to float altitude, 22 miles up in much less dusty skies, the door opened and BITSE began taking pictures of the Sun. 

The BITSE balloon flight put a new coronagraph to the test, a kind of instrument that looks at the Sun’s dim atmosphere. The BITSE tech — short for Balloon-borne Investigation of Temperature and Speed of Electrons in the corona — is designed to look for clues to how the solar wind forms. That’s the stream of charged particles constantly blowing off the Sun. The solar scope takes images in certain wavelengths of light that are especially prone to scattering off dust, marking data with distracting bright spots. “The cleaner we are, the better science we’ll get,” said Budinoff, BITSE’s lead mechanical engineer. 

That morning was as much a test of the team’s nerves as it was of the door. It was the last time they’d run it before launch, and BITSE was decked out in flight configuration.

Software engineer Seonghwan Choi and his team wrote the code that tells BITSE to open sesame. They work for the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute, NASA’s partner in the BITSE mission. “If the software doesn’t work and the door doesn’t open, the mission will fail!” Choi said. He laughed nervously at the idea. Take a picture with a camera but forget to remove the lens cap first, and you just get the void — no data. 

By then, they’d already done the test at least eight times. This was BITSE’s biggest audience yet, since the entire team was gathered at NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility’s New Mexico field site for the coming launch. “When literally the entire mission is saying, ‘Your door better work!’ — the more we test the door, the better,” Budinoff told me. “I’d do it 50 more times if I could.” 

NASA Goddard/Joy Ng

It works like this: A one-centimeter-long pin — about the width of a fingernail — keeps the door latched shut, while a screw moves the pin back and forth. When BITSE receives the word, a tiny motor starts running and the screw starts turning. And that pulls the pin out from the latch, allowing the spring-loaded door to flip open. The entire thing hinges — literally — on the pin moving just half a centimeter. From sending the command to opening the door, it all takes no more than 45 seconds. 

A few minutes before the test, the team gathered in front of BITSE. Scientists brought their phones out to film it. I did the same. “It’s not going to be nearly as exciting as everyone is thinking,” Budinoff warned. 

Regardless, someone began a countdown. (We at NASA love a good countdown.) “Here it comes!” another called. BITSE buzzed for a brief moment, and the door fell open with a neat, hollow thunk. Satisfied, Budinoff started a round of applause. 

Later, they ran a second test. It looked just like the first one, but there was one key difference. Instead of sending a command, the software team let BITSE guide itself. This was the back-up plan in case they lose contact with BITSE. Without instructions from the ground, the coronagraph was programmed to open its own door after a few hours — the amount of time it would take the 6,000-pound load to ascend 22 miles. Even if it couldn’t hear the team, BITSE would dutifully stick to the plan. 

NASA Goddard/Lina Tran

After the second test, while the door was still open, the engineers took the opportunity to vacuum BITSE’s mouth. They used an ultraviolet flashlight to spot individual specks of dust, which pop in electric blues and greens under the light. With the door thoroughly tested and the tidying done, it was time to shut it one last time. The software team ran the program backwards, turning the screw the opposite direction so it pushed the pin into the latch. We listened again for motor’s high-pitched whine. “Hopefully the next time we open, we’ll be 120,000 feet in the air,” Budinoff said. 

In the end, their worrying, testing and re-testing was worth it: On Sept. 18, BITSE’s door opened like a charm. 

When I said I was going to Ouagadougou (Wa-ga-du-gu), the first question was “where, again?” So let’s start with the basics. Ouagadougou is the capital of Burkina Faso–a land-locked country in West Africa–located to the south of Mali, southwest of Niger, and north of Ghana and Togo. It is home to over 80 ethnic groups as well as Africa’s largest craft market. Burkina Faso also happens to be one of four pilot countries of the SERVIR-West Africa program, which launched in July 2016. The country’s forests are quickly degrading and shrinking; therefore, the first SERVIR service in Burkina Faso focuses on resource management, land use, and restoration. 

Admiring the lush, Flamboyant Trees around Ouagadougou

The week-long workshop brought together members from communes, or sub-provinces, across Burkina Faso with representatives from SERVIR-West Africa, the West Africa Biodiversity and Climate Change (WABiCC) program, NASA, and the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Together, we discussed environmental problems impacting the local communities–from degraded forests due to agricultural expansion, to the build-up of garbage around communities. Through the work of SERVIR-West Africa, one idea is to use satellite datasets (e.g. from Landsat) for land use planning and monitoring environmental degradation. 

Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) derived from 2019 Landsat-8 imagery. Dark greens represent robust vegetation (e.g. forest), while oranges show barren areas (e.g. bare soil)

One major limitation many communes throughout Burkina Faso encounter with any activity is safety. The primary concern of safety is related to terrorism, which spiked in December of 2018. This can be a major hurdle when trying to map the landscape like we want to do with this service, because there is no easy way for someone to physically go to different areas to validate land cover and land use maps. Therefore, one innovative approach SERVIR-West Africa and the Higher Institute for Space Studies and Telecommunications (ISESTEL) is using small Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (sUAVs) with cameras attached. I had the opportunity to actually see this technology in action, and the sUAVs drew quite the crowd. The goal is to use this drone imagery to validate the larger-scale NASA satellite data to map communes and monitor changes over time.

The UAV looking back at the team from above, outside of ISETEL

The second week of the trip to Burkina Faso included stakeholders from across Niger and Burkina Faso brought together to discuss a wide range of water-related issues. We focused on flooding, groundwater, and surface water monitoring. Each of the partners in attendance were able to discuss what they are currently involved in around these various topics and where they may be able to work together. 

We visited the headquarters of the Permanent Interstate Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel (CILSS, in French). CILSS is leading several water-related activities in the Sahel and participated in the second workshop.

After two productive weeks in Ouagadougou, it was time for the sun to set on the trip and for me to head back to the United States. From what I saw of Burkina Faso, it is a beautiful country with plenty of greenery and different flora, delicious food, and lots to see. I look forward to being a part of the innovative work being done with our institutional partners–from the fusion of sUAVs with satellite data to finding new ways to do field work. 

Sunset over Ouagadougou

And They’re Off Like a Shot

September 20th, 2019 by Andy Hynous

Prelaunch activities. Photo by Joe Mitchell.

First off, I want to thank Lina Tran, Joy Ng, and Chelsey Ballarte for putting together the last post here at the “Balloons for Science” blog. And it just goes to show how much better it is when you don’t let the engineer do the writing. But, with that said, the engineer is back at the keyboard, so good luck!

Anywho, it’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve had a chance to put out some more information so I wanted to give an update from the field. Just recently, Joe Mitchell, my very good colleague and mission manager extraordinaire has successfully launched three additional flights from Ft. Sumner. That’s a really great thing for our scientists. Our latest payloads that we flew were the 11 MCF Piggy-back flight, the High Altitude Student Platform (HASP), and the BITSE. You might remember me talking about BITSE a couple of posts ago in “Nothing but Blue Skies Are All That I See.” All three flights flew nominally, which to us engineers means it flew just as expected. Then another good colleague of mine, Alan Haggard, the Balloon Program’s most experienced mission manager, just launched another balloon today. This time it was an engineering demonstration flight, Long Duration Balloon (LDB) Test Flight, for a bunch of new instrumentation that’ll be used on our next Super Pressure Balloon flight!

Piggyback launch. Video by Andy Hynous.

So that brings us up to five launches from Ft. Sumner this year and we still have a couple to go. I’m also going to be covering a few more topics this campaign and bringing you updates from the field. Today, I want to leave you with this from one of my favorite authors:

“I see that it is by no means useless to travel, if a man wants to see something new.”

― Jules Verne, Around the World in 80 Days

Every time we fly a balloon, we’re seeing something brand new.  Thanks again and check back real soon.