Methane Sounder Instrument Completes Successful Test Flights on the NASA DC-8

Last week, the NASA DC-8flew three flights over the California Central Valley to test the performanceof a laser-based instrument designed to measure methane in Earth’s atmosphere.   The Methane Sounder Instrument, built by Haris Riris and histeam from the Goddard Space Flight Center, may one day map methane from afuture Earth or Mars orbiting satellite.

On Earth, methane is animportant greenhouse gas produced by certain types of bacteria in soils and inthe digestive tracts of some animals. Large quantities of methane are alsoproduced as a result of forest fires and human industrial processes.  Knowledge of the global distributionand abundance of methane is important for understanding global climatechange. 

Methane has also been recentlydetected on Mars.  Because methaneis rapidly destroyed in Mars’ atmosphere, it must have been produced relativelyrecently.  While geologicalprocesses can produce methane, another exciting possibility is that Mars’ methane isproduced by life. Determining the abundance and locations of methane sources onMars is therefore extremely important for understanding recent geological (andperhaps biological) processes occurring on the Red Planet.

Before instruments areinstalled on satellites or spacecraft, many are first tested from NASAairplanes.  The Methane Sounder instrument team spent two weeks at the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility inPalmdale, CA installing and testing their instrument on the NASA DC-8.  They spent several days aligning andtesting the instrument from the airplane on the ground before finally testingits performance on three flights over the California Central Valley.  

Methane Sounder instrument PI Haris Riris (left) and StewartWu (right) test the alignment of the laser underneath the DC-8 at the NASADryden Aircraft Operations Facility. Before flying their instrument on the DC-8, they fired its laser fromthe parked airplane toward the ground, reflected the laser off of a mirrorunderneath the airplane (above), and aimed at a nearby building.  The infrared laser is invisible to thehuman eye.

Inside the DC-8, while parked at the Dryden AircraftOperations Facility, Haris Riris (center) and Martha Dawsey (left) align thelaser for the Methane Sounder instrument. The laser is fired straight down through a port on the underside of theaircraft.  To test the alignment,it was reflected off of a mirror (see above) and then off of the side of a nearlybuilding.

The Methane Sounder Instrumentdetects methane with an infrared laser beam.  The laser emits light at a wavelength (color) that is toored for the human eye to detect (1.65 microns).  Thiswavelength corresponds to one of the wavelengths that the methane moleculeabsorbs light.  As the laser passes through the atmosphere and bounces off of theground, methane molecules in the atmosphere absorb some of the light from thelaser.  Measuring the amount of absorption that occurs as the instrument passesover different locations allows the team to build methane maps.

Although current Earth-orbitingsatellites have instruments that can detect and map Earth’s methane, the laser-basedsystem of the Methane Sounder will enable much higher accuracy methanedetections and higher resolution methane maps than are possible with currentnon-laser based instruments.  With somemodifications, the laser system could also be used for a Mars-orbiting satellite.

The NASA DC-8 early morning before takeoff for the MethaneSounder Instrument test flight on August 24, 2011.

To test the instrument, theteam flew at a variety of altitudes over a large methane source (a cattlefeedlot) in the California Central Valley.  

Flight track (in red) for August 24, 2011.  The DC-8 took off from Palmdale,California, flew northwest to the California Central Valley and flew in a largeracetrack pattern around a cattle feedlot.

Altitude profile of the DC-8 from August 24, 2011.  The DC-8 took off from Palmdale, flewat 10,000 feet toward the cattle feedlot and then increased in altitude in 5000-footincrements while flying in a racetrack pattern over the California CentralValley (see flight track map above).

Haris Riris (right) and his group from the Goddard SpaceFlight Center watch as they acquire data with the Methane Sounder Instrument onboardthe NASA DC-8.

Cattle feedlot near Coalinga, Central California seen from10,000 ft from the NASA DC-8.  Dueto the large number of cattle concentrated in such a small area, this feedlotis a large methane source.

The instrument performedoutstandingly well, detecting the presence of methane in the atmosphere at allaltitudes. “The Methane Sounder is the first demonstration of methane detectionusing lasers from an aircraft flying above 30,000 ft,” said Riris.  “It should be avaluable tool for monitoring greenhouse gas emissions, especially in theArctic.” 

The Methane Sounder instrument team is all smiles in flightonboard the DC-8 as their instrument performs well.

Funding for the MethaneSounder was provided by the NASA Astrobiology Science and Technology forInstrument Development program with support from the ASCENDS CO2 Instrument Incubator Program.


On Sunday August 7, 2011, NASA’s DC-8 aircraft took off from the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, California for an eight-hour flight along the west coast of North America.  The flight was part of a series of flights testing laser instruments that may be selected to fly on a future satellite mission to measure atmospheric carbon dioxide. For more information about the ASCENDS II campaign, please see this recent article: “NASA’s DC-8 Flying Lab Validates Laser Instruments”  

NASA DC-8flight track (in red).  The DC-8took off from the NASA Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, Calif.,flew north through the Cascade Mountains and into southern British Columbia, Canadaduring an eight-hour flight on Sunday August 7, 2011.

The pilots, crew, and scientists met at 6:30AM inside the hangar at the NASA Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility.  After the flight briefing, we boarded the DC-8 and took off at 8AM, heading north from Palmdale.  One of the goals of this flight was to test the performance of the instruments over a wide variety of terrains, including vegetated surfaces and surfaces covered with snow and ice.   In order to find snow in August, we flew to the northern Cascade Mountains in Washington State and British Columbia, Canada.   

Crew andscientists prepare for takeoff inside the NASA DC-8 on Sunday August 7, 2011 (Imagecredit: E. Schaller)

After takeoff, we traversed the California Central Valley to test the performance of the instruments over vegetated terrain.  We continued north through California over the Cascade Mountain Range, flying through Oregon, Washington, and Southern British Columbia, Canada.  Along the way, we saw many famous peaks of North America including Mt. Shasta, Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Rainier, and Mt. Baker. 

Mt. Bakerin northern Washington State seen from the NASA DC-8 (Image credit: E.Schaller)

We then crossed into Canadian airspace and continued northwest, flying over numerous glaciers and snowfields.   All of the instruments were performing well, which afforded many of the scientists and crew the opportunity to step away from their computers and consoles and look out the windows at the beautiful scenery passing by below us.

DC-8flight track through Canada

A glacier in British Columbia, Canada near 51.4N 125.8W (Image credit: E. Schaller)

Another goal of the mission was to directly sample carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to compare with the remote carbon dioxide values measured by the laser systems.  We flew in slow ascending and descending spiral patterns while directly measuring carbon dioxide as we increased or decreased in altitude.  Once we re-entered Washington State after flying over the Canadian glaciers, mountains, and snowfields, we flew in a descending spiral pattern, decreasing in altitude from ~20,000 ft down to ~2000 feet.  We then flew a planned missed-approach over a small airport near Forks, Washington (Quillayute Airport).  After the missed-approach, we climbed back up to 12,000 ft, flew to another small airport near Toldeo, Washington (Ed Carlson Memorial Field), and flew another missed-approach.  

Flight track in Washington State showing the spiral patterns near Forks, WA and Toledo, WA 

Following the second missed-approach, we flew another spiral pattern, this time steadily increasing in altitude until we reached 31,000 ft.  This last spiral pattern allowed everyone onboard to see Mt. Rainier, Mt. Adams, and Mt. St. Helens multiple times.

Mt. StHelens seen from the NASA DC-8 during the ascending spiral pattern (Imagecredit: E. Schaller)

Finally, we flew south back to Palmdale along nearly the same track as we had flown north in the morning.  Though we almost landed twice, we did not actually touch the ground until we returned to Palmdale eight hours and 3500 miles later (roughly the distance between New York and London.)

Though a bit tired from the 8-hour flight, all onboard were very excited with the quality and abundance of data that was collected.

NASA G-III Completes Successful Flights in Hawaii

The NASA Gulfstream-III aircraft returned to Palmdale, Calif., onTuesday May 10, 2011 from a successful nine-day mission to the Big Island ofHawaii.  The goal of the missionwas to image volcanoes on the Big Island and map surface deformations on Oahu,Molokai, and Maui using an airborne radar system installed in the G-III calledthe Uninhabited Aerial Vehicle Synthetic ApertureRadar (UAVSAR).  

G-III flight crew and scientists on May 2, 2011 at Kona International Airport (Image Credit: Bradley Pacific Aviation)

Seven science flights totaling 39.3 hours were flown overthe nine-day deployment.  “These repeat data acquisitions will allow us to image thesurface displacement from the March 2011 Kilauea fissure eruption along itseast rift zone at unprecedented resolution” said Paul Lundgren, NASA JetPropulsion Laboratory research scientist and principal investigator of thevolcano study.  Future plans are to return to Hawaii at roughly year-longintervals (or sooner if new significant eruptive activity occurs). UAVSARprovides unique data than can improve our understanding of eruption source processes.   The data collected on thismission will provide a basis for comparison with future missions flown inresponse to new or impending volcanic eruptions.

The G-III flies at 41,000 ft to collect airborne radar data.  A break in the clouds allowed Tim Moes onboard the G-III to take this image of the snow-covered summit of Mauna Kea (14,000 ft) with its many astronomical observatories

Broadband Lidar Instrument Team Concludes Successful Test Flights on the NASA DC-8

How do instruments end up on satellites orbiting the Earth? 

For many of them, long before they are ever launched into space, they are tested from NASA airplanes. One of the objectives of the NASA Airborne Science Program is to test new instruments in space-like environments. Testing future satellite instruments from airplanes is the next best thing to actually testing them in space.

The NASA DC-8 at the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, CA (Credit: E. Schaller)

Over the past three weeks, a team from the Goddard Space Flight Center led by Bill Heaps has been testing an instrument on the NASA DC-8 that they hope will fly on the ASCENDS satellite mission. ASCENDS (Active Sensing of Carbon dioxide Emissions over Nights Days and Seasons) is an upcoming NASA satellite expected to be launched in 2018-2020. The goal of ASCENDS is to measure the sources, distribution, and variations in carbon dioxide gas to a very high precision all over the Earth. Mapping carbon dioxide is important for understanding the global carbon cycle and for modeling global climate change.

Bill Heaps tests the Broadband Lidar instrument inside the NASA DC-8 (Image Credit:  E. Georgieva)

How do you measure carbon dioxide from space? Carbon dioxide makes up a very small fraction of the gas in Earth’s atmosphere. In addition, the majority of the carbon dioxide variability occurs in the first hundred feet above the surface of the Earth. In order to measure the abundance of carbon dioxide from a satellite, any instrument must therefore look through Earth’s entire atmosphere in order to detect the variations in carbon dioxide occurring near the surface.

Heaps’ instrument, a broadband Lidar, uses an infrared laser beam aimed at the surface of the Earth.  As the laser passes through the atmosphere and bounces off of the ground, carbon dioxide molecules in the atmosphere absorb some of the light from the laser.  Measuring the amount of absorption that occurs as the instrument passes over different locations on the Earth will allow the team to build global carbon dioxide maps.

Typical Lidar systems have lasers that emit light at very specific colors (wavelengths). The broadband laser used in Heaps’ instrument emits light with a broader range of wavelengths. The carbon dioxide molecule absorbs light at a several different infrared wavelengths. A broadband Lidar, therefore, has the advantage of being able to detect carbon dioxide absorption in multiple wavelength bands with one laser. The wavelength control requirements are also less strict than for a more conventional narrowband laser, which may make the system easier to implement on a satellite.

The Goddard team worked for over two weeks to install and test their instrument on the DC-8 on the ground at the NASA Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, California. 

Broadband Lidar Instrument team members (Wen Huang and Elena Georgieva) test the performance of their laser inside the DC-8 at the NASA Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility (Image Credit:  W. Heaps)

This week, the team flew with their instrument on two, four-hour flights on the DC-8. During the flights, they tested the instrument performance at variety of altitudes and over different types of surfaces (deserts, agricultural fields, mountainous terrain, the ocean, and the flat waters of Lake Tahoe). The team was very pleased with the performance of the instrument. “The system definitely measured CO2 on both flights even transmitting a very small amount of laser power. I believe the broadband technique has excellent potential to be scaled up for measurements from space,” Heaps said.

DC-8 flight track (in red) from Wednesday May 4, 2011.  During the four-hour flight, the Broadband Lidar Instrument was tested at variety of altitudes and over a variety of different surface terrains.

This July, several instrument teams all vying to be chosen to fly on ASCENDS will test their instruments side by side on the DC-8. With data from the test flights of the Broadband Lidar Instrument in hand, Heaps’ team will return to Goddard to make refinements and improvements in the hope that their instrument will be chosen to fly on the ASCENDS satellite mission.

Funding for the Goddard Broadband Lidar was provided by the NASA Earth Science Technology Office Instrument Incubator program.

Students Selected for 2011 NASA Student Airborne Research Program (SARP)

Twenty-nine advanced undergraduate and early graduate students from across the United States have been selected to participate in the 2011 NASA Student Airborne Research Program (SARP).

SARP, now in its third year, is a unique summer internship program that enables students to acquire hands-on research experience in all aspects of an airborne scientific campaign.  The twenty-nine students will work in multi-disciplinary teams in three general research areas: atmospheric chemistry, evapotranspiration from agricultural crops in California, and ocean biology along the California coast.  They will assist in the operation of instruments onboard the NASA DC-8 aircraft to sample atmospheric gases and to image land and water surfaces in multiple spectral bands. Along with airborne data collection, students will also participate in taking measurements at field sites.

Outstanding faculty, mentors, and staff are drawn from several universities and NASA centers as well as from NASA flight operations and engineering.  Program faculty will present detailed information on their research.  Faculty and mentors will then guide participants through instrument and flight preparations, data analysis, and interpretation.  Students will give final presentations of their results and the conclusion of the program.  In addition, several students will go on to present their results at the American Geophysical Union fall meeting in San Francisco.

SARP 2010 Video Summary (produced by J. Peterson)

SARP 2009 was featured in an NPR piece “Earth Science from the Sky: The Next Generation” by Jon Hamilton.
The 2011 SARP students hail from 28 universities and colleges in 20 states.  The majors of the students in this interdisciplinary group cover a wide range of scientific, mathematical, and engineering disciplines.   Students were competitively selected based on their outstanding academic performance, future career plans, ability to work in teams, and interest in Earth system science.  One of the great strengths of SARP is that students from different disciplines learn from each other and work together toward common research goals.  Students also form lasting personal and professional relationships that they will carry into their future careers.  
SARP is managed by the National Suborbital Education and Research Center at the University of North Dakota with funding form the NASA Airborne Science Program.  For more information and updates on SARP 2011, please visit

Glory Launch

**[First Posted on March 5, 2011]**

All of the scientists, engineers, pilots, and crew onboard the NASA DC-8 and the NASA Airborne Science Program support staff on the ground were deeply saddened by the launch failure of the Glory satellite.  For more information about the specifics of what went wrong, watch the NASA news conference.  For information on what the loss of Glory means to climate science, see here.

The NASA DC-8 left its home base at the NASA Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in California at 9:47PM PST.

Boarding the NASA DC-8 before takeoff (March 4, 2011 8PM)

Inside the NASA DC-8 (March 4, 2011 8PM)

The DC-8 flew 1800 miles south to 7.5N 120W (a spot over the Pacific Ocean 2800 miles off the coast of Panama) where it circled for approximately thirty minutes at 41,000 ft, waiting to track the launch at 2:09 AM PST.

NASA DC-8 flight track (red line).  The DC-8 tracked Glory’s launch while flying at 41,000 ft at 7.5S 120W

Instruments installed on the DC-8 by the KTech Corporation first detected Glory approximately four minutes after launch and tracked it for ten additional minutes.  The failure of the fairing (a protective cover) to separate approximately three minutes after launch was revealed in Glory’s unexpected trajectory.

Telemetry data collected by the NASA DC-8 and from other locations will be used to better understand what went wrong. 

TWiLiTE concludes successful flights on ER-2

**[First posted on February 17, 2011]**

TWiLiTE (Tropospheric Wind Lidar Technology Experiment) successfully completed engineering testing today at the NASA Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, CA.  
The NASA ER-2 in flight
TWiLiTE installed in the ER-2 QBay

The TWiLiTE instrument measures wind profiles through the lower atmosphere.  During deployment, TWiLiTE operated for 17 hours while airborne on the NASA ER-2.  The highlight of the deployment was a science flight from Palmdale to Denver on Valentine’s Day during which TWiLiTE took five hours of wind profile measurements.  

After the ER-2 returned, instrument scientists from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center were literally jumping and yelling for joy in the hangar at Dryden when they took their first look at the data! 

Wind profile data collected by TWiLiTE will be important for analyzing atmospheric dynamics, for weather predictions, and for understanding Earth’s hydrological cycle.  Data reduction and processing is now in progress.   The data will also be compared with ground validation measurements to verify TWiLiTE’s performance.

TWiLiTE sits on its dolly in the hangar at Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility

after its successful flights on the NASA ER-2 (Feb 17, 2011)

Engineers work on the ER-2 after TWiLiTE is removed (Feb 17, 2011)

The TWiLiTE instrument was developed with funding from the Earth Science Technology Office as a demonstration for the 3D-WINDS Global Wind Space Mission.   ER-2 flight testing of TWiLiTE was provided by the NASA Airborne Instrument Technology Transfer program.