On this week’s “TechKnow,” Phil Torres goes airborne to learn more about a NASA program called SEAC4RS (Studies of Emissions and Atmospheric Composition, Clouds, and Climate Coupling by Regional Surveys) and a fleet of jets that are being utilized as flying laboratories to study pollution, climate change and the atmosphere.
"I like science laboratories enough as it is," “TechKnow” contributor Phil Torres says, "but to be in the air and be in a science lab -- it was pretty cool."
“An aircraft, unlike a satellite, is steerable,” Mission Director Walter Klein tells Torres. “We can find a structure and repeatedly fly over it manually, and really get to know on the micro-level over a broad area of ground what’s happening.”
The SEAC4RS program flies three times a week, employing three different types of aircraft that fly in formation, taking readings from varying altitudes at the same locations. Probes and instruments on the exterior of the planes collect samples and measure conditions as they fly on a designated path.
A NASA DC-8 provides observations from the surface up to 12 kilometers (about 7.5 miles) and carries scientists and equipment to conduct tests and collect samples in the air. Torres catches a ride on the airborne laboratory and talks to the scientists who are gathering data to study weather, atmosphere, and most specifically, climate change.
"The job of the plane is to conduct the symphony of the science on the aircraft, making sure that the scientists are getting what they need when they want it, how they want it,” Klein explains to Torres. “We’re also making sure we’re doing it safely.”
It may look like a commercial jet, but activity inside the DC-8 is nothing like passengers are used to. The scientists are in charge, telling the flight crew where to fly and at what altitude. They seek out clouds and areas of turbulence, making for a bumpy ride. They also instruct the pilot to circle back through areas of interest, sometimes making multiple passes over a specific location.
A NASA ER-2 (modeled after the U-2 spy plane) flies above the DC-8, providing high-altitude observations and samples from the lower stratosphere and sending them to Mission Control on the ground. A Learjet conducts cloud measurements and communicates with the other planes, as well as with coordinated satellites that fly in orbit above the planes’ paths.
Jasna Vellovic Pittman is a research scientist from Harvard University. She works with a team that studies information gathered from an instrument on the ER-2.
“Almost no other plane is capable of of reaching these high altitudes,” Pittman tells Torres. “We have remote sensors that allow us to look at the chemical composition of the atmosphere, the outflow of convective activity... We’re also interested in looking at the effects of hurricanes.”