Skier, Mountaineer, Snow Scientist: In the Field with the Women of SnowEx

By Gabrielle Antonioli, Montana State University /BOISE, IDAHO/

“Watch me,” I say to Megan as I tip my skis over the edge of snow at the top of a steep gully in the southern portion of the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho. She nods knowingly from the ridge above. Not letting her eyes leave me, she watches as I quickly pop off my skis and get my shovel out of my backpack to dig a snow pit. Though this pit is smaller than the snow pit we dug the previous day at the Banner Summit weather station and radar site, it gives us a similar glimpse at the structure of the layered snow under our feet. After a quick test to assess the strength and stability of the snowpack as well as look at the overall structure of the top meter of snow, I determine the snow looks stable (which means the risk of avalanche is low) and we start our ski descent down the narrow snow gully. 

abrielle Antonioli assessing the snow atop the Elevator Shaft ski line in the Sawtooth mountains of Idaho.
The other side of snow science: Gabrielle Antonioli assessing the snow atop the Elevator Shaft ski line in the Sawtooth mountains of Idaho in March of 2021. Credit: Megan Mason

The intersection between scientists who study snow and those who are fascinated with mountaineering and avalanches is an interesting one, to say the least.  Like many other Earth sciences, we must venture out into the element of study and observe it carefully and with a curious mind to start to understand the complex dynamics by which it operates.  And though the snow-centric field of cryosphere science is infinitely interesting, it is an intimidating path to choose. Women in cryosphere sciences – whether on the path of data scientist, glacier researcher, or avalanche forecaster – are few and far between. I met like-minded women like Megan Mason and Isis Brangers when I joined HP Marshall’s Cryosphere Geophysics and Remote Sensing group (CryoGARS) at Boise State University and the NASA SnowEx 2020-2021 campaign he led as co-project scientist. Isis is currently finishing her Ph. D. with the CryoGARS group and previously worked on a project studying snow depth over the European Alps with the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1 satellite. Megan is currently a research scientist for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. 

Megan Mason using an SMP on the Grand Mesa SnowEx campaign in 2020, photo: C. Hiemstra.

SnowEx campaigns utilize traditional snowpit observation techniques alongside techniques aimed at being able to monitor and infer properties about the snow from afar. These include Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), light detection and ranging (LiDAR), SnowMicroPenetrometry (SMP), liquid water content sensors, ground-penetrating radar, and airborne inferometric synthetic aperture radar (InSAR).

HP Marshall and Isis Brangers doing a full snow pit profile. Credit: Megan Mason

Remote detection of snow water equivalent (SWE) – or how much liquid water a snowpack contains – has long been a goal of hydrologic scientists. SWE is important to other branches of the snow world, like avalanche control and forecasting, which attracts a variety of scientists with specialized skill sets that enable them to reach mountain locations in winter. This work is challenging and involves risk, and I’m continually inspired by the women I meet that can troubleshoot a faulty weather station, dig a full profile science snow pit in a blizzard, and handle adversity of any kind with positivity and determination.

Isis clearing the solar panels on a radar station.
Isis clearing the solar panels on a radar station at Banner Summit, Idaho. Credit: HP Marshall

Large hydrology-focused projects like SnowEx can directly benefit the snow and avalanche community, and subsequently many economies across the mountain west. This is where the intersection between backcountry skier and snow scientist occurs. Mapping SWE throughout a mountain range in real-time would shift the entire landscape of forecasting for both snow hazard and spring water run-off monitoring. Currently, these monitoring efforts are based on using index sites such as Snowpack Telemetry sites, or SNOTELs, combined with historical knowledge and experience, to help extrapolate how much water the snowpack holds.  Even with current technology, precipitation estimates are relatively unreliable in some places and can be highly uncertain in both amount and type of precipitation. With remote sensing technologies like those being tested with SnowEx, and the women behind the scenes working to improve these technologies, we can fill that gap.

Megan Mason in the snow in Grand Mesa.
Megan Mason on the Grand Mesa 2020 campaign. Credit: K. Hale

The focus of the 2021 SnowEx airborne and field effort in Idaho was part of an experiment at sites in the Boise and Sawtooth mountains, in addition to sites in Utah, Colorado, and Montana. Radar sensors were flown at 40,000 feet each week across all sites from January through March, producing a time series. The sensor that was used has shown promise for mapping changes in SWE and a similar sensor may one day be launched into space in 2023 by a joint NASA and Indian Space Research Organization satellite mission called NISAR.  

Though the 2022 SnowEx campaign was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns, data collection continued at ground-based radar station sites and helicopter LiDAR flyovers continued over these zones. This data is key to refining remote sensing technologies for snow. Collecting data that is both accurate over large areas and sampled at frequent time points is important because accurate snow data estimations require that our instruments are precise. 

Snow research is a challenging field to enter, but barriers to that entry are getting lower. Women like Isis and Megan forge a path for others to enter the field with less resistance and support to reach even further. Snow’s ability to serve as a water reservoir is shifting beneath our feet due to climate change, whether we sense it or not.  Disparities in weather patterns, rising rain lines in the mountains, and unpredictable climate patterns are at our doorstep.  Research like the NASA SnowEx campaign is key in developing new tools to observe these environmental changes.  Our efforts to synthesize and utilize new and non-traditional tools as well as offer a diverse and supportive workplace can help us better understand the past and the changing future. 

Gabrielle looking into the Sawtooth Range in Idaho.
Gabrielle looking into the Sawtooth Range in Idaho in March of 2012. Credit: Megan Mason
Gabrielle setting a trail on skis.
Gabrielle demonstrating some of the more unique skills of snow science– setting a good trail! Credit: B. Kniveton
Megan Mason skiing the Elevator Shaft in the Idaho backcountry.
Megan Mason skiing the Elevator Shaft in the Idaho backcountry. Credit: Gabrielle Antonioli


Planning, Coordinating and Communicating: The Science Behind Winter Storm Chasing Experiments

by Abby Graf

As the snowstorm headed through New York on February 24, one professor at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, New York spent the hours leading up to it preparing his students to head right into the storm.

Brian Colle, atmospheric science professor at Stony Brook University, is part of many operations in NASA’s Investigation of Microphysics and Precipitation for Atlantic Coast-Threatening Snowstorms (IMPACTS).

Whether it’s preparing a team to operate radars and mobile trucks, launching weather balloons, or flying in the cockpit of one of two aircraft used in the experiment, Colle’s job deals with the fun of coordinating and communicating, and the heart of the mission: science. IMPACTS aims to understand the precipitation mechanisms within snowstorms. The campaign uses two aircraft, ground-based radars, weather balloons, computer simulations, and airborne instruments to help answer questions about how snowstorms form and develop, and how to better predict them.

“One of my jobs is serving as the liaison between the teams,” said Colle. “We start with a briefing the morning of, then I’m making sure I know the plan of the day. I’m coordinating, sending emails, making sure the radar truck is ready. As the mission goes along, I’m in contact with the teams the whole time, making sure we’re collecting data. The job isn’t finished until the storm is over.”

Using Mobile Radar Trucks at Key Locations to Capture Data 

Colle sent teams of students out midday on February 24 to prepare for the overnight storm. One of the teams operates the mobile radar truck that has a Skyler-2 radar on it, which sends out pulse signals every few seconds to collect observations about the atmosphere from lower altitudes, providing high-resolution data from the large geographic regions it samples. “This is the next generation of radars; [helping us] understand rapid storm evolution,” said Colle.

Radar truck parked in a snowy lot with instruments on the back.
The Stony Brook University radar truck deployed during a storm. The instruments on the back of the truck provide data from the Skyler-2 radar, snow size particle sizes from the Parsivel instrument, as well as pressure, temperature, humidity, wind direction, and wind speed of the storms they sample. Photo courtesy of Brian Colle.

The truck is also outfitted with a Parsivel instrument, which is a vertically pointed radar that samples the sizes of snowflakes or raindrops, along with a standardized weather instrument package including thermometers, gauges, pressure sensors, and more. Some of the team headed up to the storm hours before it began to find a location with good visibility in all directions. The goal is to have an area where trees and buildings are not blocking the sensing instruments. While collecting data would’ve begun around 1 a.m., internet issues prevented the team from getting the experiment running, but they have collected a great amount of data from past storms. 

Launching Weather Balloons in the Depths of the Storm

Back at Stony Brook University, Colle organized a group of students to launch weather balloons on campus to measure temperature, pressure, and humidity at different altitudes. An instrument package is attached to the balloon and can “communicate” with a computer on the ground, sending data back as the balloon rises in the air.

A group of students prepares to launch a weather balloon from a snowy field.
A group of Stony Brook students getting the weather balloons ready for a past storm on January 28, 2022. The instruments are tied to strings attached to the balloons, including a parachute and GPS system that provides the location of the balloon. Around 8 kilometers (5 miles), the communication drops off and contact is lost with the system. Photo Courtesy of Brian Colle.

These balloons are launched from a radar truck, which is also equipped with instruments to measure snowflake characteristics. The team started collecting data hours before the two aircraft reached the storms. The P-3 aircraft flies directly into the storm, with instruments aboard to collect data and images from various altitudes. This gives scientists a deeper look at the microphysical properties of the storm, while the ER-2 aircraft flies at roughly 65,000 feet, capturing data with six remote-sensing instruments from above the clouds. The ER-2 arrived at the storm around 4:30 a.m., but the P-3 faced mechanical issues that delayed its launch until the morning of February 25.

The Full Flight Experience

Though not on the P-3 flight this time around, Colle has had the opportunity to fly in the cockpit of the aircraft a few times the past two months, including the February 17 snowstorm in the Chicago area. This falls under his one of many roles but is one of the reasons he joined this mission early on. Interested in studying snowstorms for years, being in the cockpit of the plane during these storms is a lot of fun for Colle. He’s the mission scientist when on the plane, helping interpret the data collected, modify flight tracks, communicate any changes to the pilots, and helping with coordinating the instruments on the plane to make sure everything is functioning and communicating. 

One of the lessons he’s learned is how the pilots navigate the busy airspaces. In populated areas like Chicago or New York, there are a lot of planes taking off, flying, and landing, requiring the pilots to coordinate where the aircraft is headed. It requires a team effort to figure out how to best orient the aircraft. 

With a radar snapshot showing the storm being sampled by the P-3 aircraft, Colle snaps a selfie in the cockpit of the plane. Photo Courtesy of Brian Colle.
With a radar snapshot showing the storm being sampled by the P-3 aircraft, Colle snaps a selfie in the cockpit of the plane. Photo Courtesy of Brian Colle.

“It’s awesome to be a part of the mission. For many years we didn’t have these opportunities. In the past, I’d take measurements on the ground, collecting snowfall and looking under a microscope at the crystal shapes and habits. Looking at data in real-time, looking out the window, and then interacting with the pilots and hearing what they have to deal with…it’s a continuous science experiment and participating in regions we haven’t sampled before has been very exciting,” said Colle.

As IMPACTS winds down its science experiments this winter, Colle and the rest of the team are looking forward to their opportunities next time around. Winter storms aren’t always the easiest to sample, and the scientists are constantly learning. But the instances in which challenges and difficulties occur only make Colle more confident that the data collected this year will give them better opportunities for improvement next year.

Storm Chasing Scientists Fly Into the Clouds to Understand Winter Snowstorms

By Abby Graf

Imagine the feeling of flying on an airplane. Smooth sailing, clear skies, not a cloud in sight. It’s a relaxing ride that many take for work or recreational travel. Now imagine flying through clouds, with the turbulence of different intensities. While some sink and hold onto their seats, others view it like a rollercoaster ride with their adrenaline pumping. Christian Nairy and Jennifer Moore know a thing or two about that.

Nairy and Moore, two atmospheric science graduate students at the University of North Dakota, are part of NASA’s Investigation of Microphysics and Precipitation for Atlantic Coast-Threatening Snowstorms (IMPACTS). Their job is to operate probes on one of two aircraft used in the experiments. The P-3 aircraft that houses their airborne office flies directly into the snowstorms, allowing the instruments Nairy and Moore operate to measure snow particles and atmospheric properties within the storm clouds.

The P-3 aircraft on the tarmac at NASA Wallops.
The P-3 aircraft at NASA Wallops on February 3 before a science flight. Credit: Vidal Salazar

IMPACTS is the first comprehensive study of snowstorms in the Northeastern United States in 30 years. The campaign combines satellite data, ground-based radars, weather balloon launches, computer simulations, and airborne instruments to understand snowstorms. The goal is to develop greater comprehension of winter storm formation and development by using several instruments that examine the microphysical characteristics of snow particles at various temperatures and altitudes. The data collected during the multi-year IMPACTS campaign can help advance the future of snowstorm forecasting and predictions.

“If we understand the microphysics of the clouds, what we’re seeing, when we’re seeing them, and how we’re seeing them, it gives scientists in other disciplines a better understanding of what they’re studying,” said Nairy. The IMPACTS experiments will provide robust datasets about winter snowstorms for scientists to analyze and incorporate into their own research.   

Nairy and Moore have spent the last few months based at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, spending their days troubleshooting problems and revamping the nine probes that are on each flight. When a storm is in the forecast, it’s go time. They arrive at the hangar to prepare the probes, computers, and flash drives that will accompany their research in the air. An hour before the plane takes off, they board the P-3 and continue prepping the cloud probes.

All but one of the probes hangs off the tips of the plane’s wings, away from the propellers, each having its own job: taking high-definition photos of ice particles, measuring the total amount of water (both in liquid and ice form),  measuring the size of full and partial snow particles, and sampling shattered particles. These data-collecting tools can sample over 30 million particles in a single eight-hour flight alone.


Close-up images of snow particles captured by one of the probes on the P3.
A few of several particle images that the probes captured. Dependent upon the temperature and humidity at which they’re formed, some are “Bullet Rosettes” which are star-patterned, near the top of cold clouds; There are also hexagon-shaped particles, a pencil-shaped particle with hexagons at each side, a conglomeration of “plates” that are connected and more. Photos courtesy of Christian Nairy taken on the PHIPS Instrument.

“The whole point is to measure as much as we can when it comes to particles, concentration, sizes and particle habits,” says Moore. “We want to further our understanding of these storms and why they dump snow over the Northeast.”

Probes hanging off the wing of the plane.
The left wing of the P-3 aircraft. The probes capture data in different ways, some particles entering directly into their openings, some read by lasers, and more. Photo Credit: Christian Nairy
Probes hanging off the wing of the P3.
The right wing of the P-3 aircraft with its probes. Credit: Christian Nairy

Once the plane takes off, the team settles in for eight hours of flying and collecting data. Flying through the clouds isn’t always smooth sailing, though. Sometimes there’s turbulence and sometimes the storm quickly changes from snowflakes one minute to liquid water droplets the next. The transitions are quick, but the technology that captures these changes furthers the researchers’ understanding of how snowstorms work. While much of the flight involves looking at data in real-time, there are downtimes where conversation and collaboration can happen. The team chats with other researchers onboard, cracks jokes, takes notes of what they’re seeing and communicates with the IMPACTS HQ ground team at NASA Wallops.

IMPACTS Principal investigator Lynn McMurdie is on the ground at NASA Wallops as the flights take place. While the planes cruise at 300 mph at various altitudes within the storm, she’s constantly communicating with the teams, directing them to sample certain parts of the storm – like snow bands and when to make in-flight adjustments.

Snow bands are narrow structures in the atmosphere that are created by the storm itself. These banded structures tend to cause heavy snowfall. Not all storms produce these bands, however, and sometimes the bands don’t dump lots of snow, which furthers the importance of understanding just why, how, and when they do or don’t form. 

“We decide where to fly based on forecasts of our storm of interest,” McMurdie shares. “We tend to draw a line or box of where we want to do our sampling, usually going across any banded structures from one side to the other. Going across the snow bands gives us variability in and outside of the band.” 

Sampling snow bands with variability offers researchers’ an improved understanding of how the distribution of snow varies from storm to storm. It’s dependent upon two factors: storm strength and location. There are times when snow bands will drop many inches of snow within a short period of time, but other times when there’s only a light dusting of snow.  Sampling from within and outside of the band, and at different altitudes, helps the team see the whole picture of precipitation and snow production.

Christian Nairy and Jennifer Moore seated at their in-flight computers in the P3 aircraft.
Jennifer Moore (left) and Christian Nairy (right) are seen here operating the monitors and looking at data that their nine cloud probes produce. Photo Courtesy of Christian Nairy.

“The more data we can get, the better we can predict and understand. It’s so important to try and fly in every storm we possibly can,” Moore says. “[The snow storms] can be really impactful, even if it’s an inch or two. You think you understand them, but then you actually get into the science of it. You learn so much more when you’re actually experiencing it.”

As the eight-hour flight prepares to land, Nairy and Moore’s work isn’t done. As soon as the P-3 touches down, the probes are shut off and covered, the data is downloaded to computers, and a post-flight briefing occurs. The two graduate students update and maintain the probes to ensure they’re ready for their next storm-chasing flight. And then it’s time to call it a day.

Up, up and away: Launching Balloons in a Blizzard

by Sofie Bates

Andrew Janiszeski and Troy Zaremba blow up a weather balloon in a dark hotel lobby. The weather was calm last night when they drove into Plymouth, Massachusetts, but this morning a blizzard is raging outside. Snow is piling up in the hotel parking lot, wind gusts are near 70mph, and the power is out – but they have a job to do.

Janiszeski and Zaremba, two graduate students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, are one of several teams deployed throughout the northeastern United States to launch weather balloons during the approaching snowstorm. While the teams launch weather balloons from the ground, two NASA aircraft will fly overhead to study the storm from a different vantage. The experiments are part of NASA’s multi-year Investigation of Microphysics and Precipitation for Atlantic Coast-Threatening Storms (IMPACTS) mission, which is the first comprehensive study of snowstorms across the Eastern United States in 30 years. 

Satellite image of snowfall over the northeastern U.S.
The nor’easter dumped snow on the northeastern United States on January 28-29 and brought hurricane force winds and blizzard conditions to some states. Image by NASA Earth Observatory / Lauren Dauphin using MODIS data from NASA’s Aqua satellite.

Janiszeski and Zaremba bundle up and step out into the blizzard to prepare for the first balloon launch of the day. They bury a communications antenna in a snowbank next to their van and attach a small device, called a radiosonde, to the balloon with tape and zip ties. If all goes well, the radiosonde will measure the balloon’s position as well as the temperature, pressure and humidity at different altitudes as the balloon rises into the sky. This data will help the scientists understand the atmospheric conditions of the storm and how they change with altitude.

Andrew Janiszeski prepares to launch a weather balloon in a winter snowstorm.
Andrew Janiszeski prepares to launch a weather balloon near Geneseo, New York on a previous deployment for IMPACTS. Hanging below the weather balloon is the radiosonde, which will collect data as the balloon rises and then parachute back down once the balloon pops. Photo courtesy of Troy Zaremba.

They walk the balloon out of the hotel lobby. Double check that the communications antenna and radiosonde are working. Then they let the balloon go.

“It went fifteen feet up, caught a gust of wind, did a loop, dove down, almost hit a car, rag dolled around a tree, went over a gas station, and popped,” said Janiszeski. They tried again with another balloon. Same thing – pop! Hesitant to sacrifice more balloons to the winds, Janiszeski and Zaremba called the IMPACTS Headquarters team to report that they couldn’t launch.

Snow piles up in the hotel parking lot in Plymouth, Massachusetts where Janiszeski and Zaremba are launching weather balloons. Photo courtesy of Andrew Janiszeski.
Snow piles up in the hotel parking lot in Plymouth, Massachusetts where Janiszeski and Zaremba are launching weather balloons. Photo courtesy of Andrew Janiszeski.

Meanwhile at IMPACTS Headquarters, based at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility located on the eastern shore of Virginia, scientists monitored the weather and coordinated with the various teams on the ground and in the air. Their goal is to fly the two aircraft – the ER-2 aircraft that flies above the storm clouds and the P-3 aircraft that flies within them – in a stacked formation, one above the other, providing a look at the storm from different perspectives. The team also plans the flights so that the aircraft pass over the teams launching weather balloons and the teams using ground-based radars. 

“We’re trying to coordinate all of the equipment to get a nice cross section of the storm. But the storm doesn’t sit still for us, so sometimes we have to adjust our plans,” said Bob Rauber, Director of School of Earth, Society and Environment at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and one of the assistant flight planners for IMPACTS. There are a lot of factors to consider, though: clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), weather forecasts, where the storm is moving and points of interest in its path, and last-minute changes for the aircraft and ground teams – including problematic weather balloon launches.

The NASA P-3 Orion aircraft preparing to take off from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility.
The NASA P-3 Orion aircraft preparing to take off from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. Photo courtesy of Andrien Liem.

By early afternoon the winds had subsided to around 40 mile per hour gusts at the balloon launch site in Plymouth, said Janiszeski, so he and Zaremba decided to attempt another launch. They tied the radiosonde to the weather balloon, adding extra zip ties and duct tape for good measure. Then they walked it out of the hotel lobby, took a breath, and let it go.

As soon as it was released, the balloon was taken by the wind. It flipped once, twice, three times, and Janiszeski’s hope plummeted. But then the balloon righted itself and kept rising, and rising, until it was impossible to see. 

“It was a miracle,” said Janiszeski. “I really thought we were going to get a whopping zero balloons up at the beginning of the day.” But from there on out, the balloon launches were largely successful, he said. The duo got five successful balloon launches before the storm moved away from Plymouth. 

“This was, without the remotest doubt, the most severe conditions we’ve experienced during IMPACTS,” said Janiszeski. “I was getting a little pessimistic, but five radiosondes in a storm like that… We’ll take it as a win.” 

Preparing for Landing: NASA’s S-MODE Wraps up Last Week of Experiments

By Dragana Perkovic-Martin, Principal Investigator for DopplerScatt at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory // SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA //


Yesterday was a hard down day for the team – everyone needed a rest after a very active week before. The hard down days are in NASA airborne rules and ensure that fatigue does not set in and keep everyone’s safety  the top priority.

The NASA King Air B200 and the early morning fog at NASA Ames Research Center.
Spooky! NASA King Air B200 and the early morning fog at NASA Ames Research Center. Photo credit: Alex Wineteer / NASA JPL

To fly or not to fly … Today is supposed to be a good day for optical measurements but the pesky fog is really not willing to leave the area of S-MODE operations. We sit and wait for updates from the ship, satellite imagery and forecasts. In the meantime, we are using the Saildrone measurements of wind speed in the area of interest to determine if it’s worthwhile to operate DopplerScatt. The winds are very low. The hourly reports are telling us that the winds have been below DopplerScatt’s threshold for the whole morning, reporting wind speeds of one meter per second. At this wind speed the ocean surface is very still, so still that it may look like a mirror. This is bad news for radar signals bouncing off the surface as their strength depends on the surface roughness. No dice for DopplerScatt today, and the same decision was made for the MOSES and MASS instruments on the Twin Otter. 


Remember that pesky problem with the monitor from last week? I overnighted a replacement monitor for the DopplerScatt team since yesterday was a doozy with no flights, they decided to swap out the monitor and keyboard on the plane. Trouble is they did not test that it worked. We just thought, “well what could go wrong, it’s the same model.” What do you know, it did go wrong! I’ll spare you the details and the frantic messaging between myself and the operators, but after some time they realized that the power cable was not plugged in and the monitor was not getting power. All in a day of DopplerScatt deployments!

Crew in front of the NASA King Air B200.
Crew of the day from left to right: Karthik Srinivasan (JPL DopplerScatt operator), Hernan Posada (AFRC pilot), Jeroen Molemaker (UCLA MOSES operator), James Less (AFRC pilot). Photo credit: Alex Wineteer / NASA JPL


Today is a science extravaganza! We have a big day ahead of us with two NASA King Air B200 flights planned and all of the in-water assets sampling data throughout the day. The weather is finally cooperating and we have a clear yet windy day ahead of us. The plan today is to fly a morning flight – which just took off at 8am – and then another one leaving approximately 6 hours later and flying the exact same pattern. The comparison of data between the two will tell us about the daily variability of the ocean processes. 

“This is one of the reasons why I am so excited about S-MODE,” said Hector Torres, DopplerScatt team member, operator and one of the main people responsible for simulating ocean processes. “The results based on theory and numerical simulations produced in the last five years are about to get confirmed or debunked today. Either way it will be a breakthrough!”

Flight one is now done! There were some pesky low clouds right in the area of collection that prevented MOSES from collecting quality data for half of the flight, but the second half was great. DopplerScatt data collection went as planned and data are churning already! We are seeing the first quick look data products trickle in as we watch the afternoon flight take off.

While the first flight was a bit difficult for our optical colleague running the MOSES system, Jeroen Molemaker from the University of California, Los Angeles, the afternoon was gloriously clear and provided a great opportunity for all airborne instruments to collect data at the same time. 

Quick look composite image of the sea surface temperature as observed by the MOSES instrument on the November 4, 2021 afternoon flight. The tracks are overlaid on DopplerScatt derived surface current velocities from the morning flight, showing the spatial relationship between currents and density fields. The color scale blue to red has a range of 2°C. Credit: NASA’s S-MODE team / Jeroen Molemaker

Today the S-MODE pilot experiment operated as we envisioned many months ago, with all platforms sampling data throughout the day over the area of interest. The field experiment crew is  tired but happy and the team is excited about the science that we will extract from this data set.

Goodnight moon. NASA King Air B200 on arrival at Moffett Field, California after a long day of flights. Photo credit: Alex Wineteer / NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory


Today is the final day of the S-MODE pilot campaign. It’s a bittersweet feeling for me as it was so much fun to collaborate and coordinate daily activities with so many people. I will miss that, but I certainly will not miss the hectic calls of “we have a problem with …”

The NASA King Air B200 will fly in the afternoon collecting data in the western region of the S-MODE study area  together with the Twin Otter aircraft. Meanwhile, our friends on the ship will start recovering the autonomous assets and make their way toward Newport, Oregon.

Trouble struck again as our GPS unit could not get itself aligned and produce a good navigation solution, requiring a power reset and making S-turns i.e. banking the aircraft left and right in succession. After this excitement things went smoothly for the rest of the flight. You never know what will go wrong during a field deployment, you just know that something will and you need to be prepared to react and fix things without letting the panic set in! Thankfully that is what happened today thanks to Alex Winteer, a DopplerScatt operator from NASA JPL. He performed a cool and collected power reset while in air!

Happy crew on their last flight of the S-MODE pilot campaign. On the left is Jeroen Molemaker (UCLA MOSES operator) and on the right is Alex Wineteer (JPL DopplerScatt operator). Photo credit: Karthik Srinivasan / NASA JPL

Now it is time to work on our post-deployment to do list and eagerly await results of data processing.

I will leave you with two short blurbs from DopplerScatt team members Alex and Karthik about their impressions of the pilot campaign. 

“On most days, you don’t wake up looking forward to a boring day. As an instrument operator, a boring day during a deployment, however, is a different story. You look forward to sitting in a small round aluminum tube for 4.5 hours with nothing to do. That is a perfect day – a day when the radar just works. No last minute excitement of monitors not turning on (because someone unplugged it and forgot to plug it back in!) or the satellite phone connection not working. While the entire science team is excited about an action-packed day of coincident data collection, all the instrument operators look forward to is a day where everything just works as it should! Of course, sitting in an aluminum tube for many hours, staring out at the ocean with nothing to do makes you yearn for some excitement, but that is a fleeting thought until you get a text message via satellite link asking you to pay attention to the speed of the aircraft!” 

– Karthik Srinivasan, NASA JPL DopplerScatt operator


“I’ve been on quite a few field deployments with DopplerScatt, but none quite as exciting – or as important—as this one. Indeed, such a coordinated effort consisting of multiple aircraft and many assets in the water has never been attempted, and the resulting science will lead to new understanding of our ocean, atmosphere and the climate system as a whole. On Thursday, we attempted two flights for the first time. I operated the first flight: crew brief at 6:30 AM with a takeoff time of 8 AM. Thankfully, our instrument operated normally, and we were able to fly a bit lower –under the clouds – to ensure MOSES could see the ocean surface with its infrared camera. We landed five hours later, at around 1 PM, and I immediately took our data back to our field processing center in the aircraft hangar to start crunching. In the meantime, Karthik took off for our second flight of the day. By the time I finished the first round of processing, it was 5 PM and Karthik was almost back from the second flight, so I went downstairs to welcome him back (and grab the data!). A few hours later, we had both flights processed to quick look data products and I was exhausted. Being just one person, a small part of a much larger mission, it can be easy to lose sight of why we do this, especially when the hours are long. But when the data started pouring in, my exhaustion was quickly replaced by excitement. We were seeing a dataset no one had ever seen before. With these two flights, we are able to not just see the sub-mesoscale structure of the ocean surface over a large area, but we could also see its evolution over time and how the atmosphere interacts with that evolution! There is much work to go in analyzing these data, especially in comparing the many other instruments to our DopplerScatt measurements, but I am grateful to play a part in that analysis, discovery and understanding.”

– Alex Wineteer, NASA JPL DopplerScatt operator

The (Virtual) Room Where it Happens: Inside NASA S-MODE’s Control Center


NASA’s Sub-Mesoscale Ocean Dynamics Experiment (S-MODE) relies on two aircraft, 17 remote-controlled vehicles, a ship and dozens of drifting instruments to make its detailed study of ocean eddies, currents and whirlpools. The researchers aim to assess how these small, high-energy ocean events contribute to circulation and heat exchange in the upper ocean, and how oceans affect climate change. The tools are stationed in a 7,800 square mile (roughly 20,200 square km) area west of San Francisco Bay, which the researchers call the “S-MODE Polygon.”

But one of the mission’s most critical tools, its control center, is not on site. The control center is a virtual daily meeting where up to 40 scientists gather to share new data, check in on the mission’s assets and plan where to maneuver their instruments and vehicles to capture the most useful measurements.

Map of the S-MODE study area, or "S-MODE polygon",  off the coast of San Francisco.
The S-MODE Polygon, where the mission’s instruments are stationed, is located off the coast of San Francisco. Credit: Cesar Rocha / University of Connecticut

The S-MODE researchers are studying sub-mesoscale ocean processes like eddies – swirling pockets of ocean water that stretch about 6.2 miles or 10 kilometers in distance and often last for only a few days. Because eddies are relatively small and quick-fading, they can be challenging to study. Opportunities to study these processes often spring up with little warning. To study these events, the S-MODE team needs to be able to move their vehicles around quickly and strategically within the polygon.

For instance, one of the airborne instruments may spot an eddie or whirlpool developing. The scientists may then decide which water measurements they would like to gather, and agree to send the appropriate mission vehicles out to the location of interest. The scientists discuss such decisions at control center meetings.

During the call, representatives for each of the assets begin by providing their status updates.

“First, we review the data our assets are seeing in the field that day or the day before, and then decide what is the interesting feature that we want to study,” said Dragana Perkovic-Martin, principal investigator for DopplerScatt, one of S-MODE’s airborne instruments, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Based on that decision, we determine which assets we need in that spot and position them in the right area.” 

A screengrab of scientists during a virtual control center meeting.
Scientists participate in a control center meeting on October 22.

The control center was originally going to be hosted in-person at the NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, California.

“The idea was for a group of us to work together there to examine the conditions and the data and to update the plan as things unfolded,” said Tom Farrar, S-MODE Principal Investigator and a scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Falmouth, Massachusetts. As COVID-19 cases surged in late summer 2021, the team decided to shift to a virtual format. Now, the only people who are in the field are those who cannot complete their work remotely, like those flying the planes or collecting measurements aboard the ship.

All of the scientists involved in S-MODE have done traditional field deployments before, Perkovic-Martin said. But few have had experience coordinating an expedition from a virtual control center. The group has adapted quickly with the help of online platforms including Slack, WebEx, email, and Zoom.

“The control center works in much the same way as originally envisioned, with a group of people trying to take in as much information about what is happening to make decisions about the plan,” Farrar said. 

One of the S-MODE Deputy Principal Investigators, Professor Eric D’Asaro of the University of Washington, leads control center meetings, with the goal of ending each meeting with an updated plan for the next few days.

“We have benefitted a lot from Eric’s enthusiasm, and his experience in other large field campaigns,” Farrar said. “We have a great team of experts and specialists, and I’m really excited about the coordinated dataset the team is collecting.”




On the Edge of Something New: Studying the Sea with a Fleet of Technologies


The October deployment of NASA’s Sub-Mesoscale Ocean Dynamics Experiment (S-MODE) mission is underway and a current of excitement has filled the halls of our virtual meetings. Over the past two years, more than 50 members of the S-MODE project have been meeting virtually to prepare for this moment. Our campaign has begun and we are testing our instruments, optimizing our sampling patterns and comparing our measurements between various instruments over a nearly three-week pilot experiment. The mission for S-MODE is ambitious: we seek to better measure, understand and ultimately model submesoscale currents, which are ocean fronts, narrow currents called jets, and filaments that are about 300 feet (100 meters) to 6.2 miles (10 kilometers). These are elusive targets for oceanographers as they are difficult to measure: too big for a ship-based study alone, too quick for ship surveys, and too small for remote sensing. Therefore, these currents must be examined using a combination of different approaches and novel technologies, as is being done in our experiment. 

View of the R/V Oceanus ship taken from the Twin Otter aircraft.
View of R/V Oceanus from the Twin Otter aircraft with the SIO MASS package on board. Credit: Nick Statom / Scripps Institution of Oceanography

To researchers with the NASA S-MODE mission, it feels like we are near the edge of something new – that it is a time of rapid change in our understanding of the ocean. Sub-mesoscale currents pull apart and push together water at the ocean surface, and this leads to water flowing up and down, respectively. This up and down motion is important for a number of Earth science processes, including interactions of the air and sea that impact weather and processes that affect the distribution of nutrients that are important for plankton productivity. 

Autonomous vehicles called Wave Gliders on the deck of the R/V Oceanus ship.
Wave Gliders on the deck of the R/V Oceanus being prepared for deployment. Credit: Courtesy of Ben Hodges / Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution(WHOI)

I am part of a team that is deploying Wave Gliders, a small uncrewed vessel that has a set of fins on a submersible platform tethered to a surface float, which it uses to kick its way around the upper ocean. These platforms are decked out with instruments and are not limited by interference from the ship. They also do not have the same risk as putting humans out in the middle of large storms (like ones we have experienced during S-MODE!). 

On the transit from Newport, Oregon to the experiment site off the coast of San Francisco, large waves (some reaching around 23 feet or 7 meters tall) rolled over the deck of the research vessel Oceanus and three of the four Wave Gliders were damaged in the process. Researchers in the Air-Sea Interaction Laboratory at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and a team at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution began to problem solve issues with the Wave Gliders by inspecting extra platforms that were on land here in San Diego, California and diagnosing the issues based on pictures provided by the team on the R/V Oceanus. Scientists from across the country then assembled to repair the Wave gliders in San Francisco harbor.

Scientists perform emergency repairs on the Wave Gliders.
Ben Hodges, Emerson Hasbrouck, Luc Lenain and Laurent Grare (not shown) perform emergency repairs to the Wave Gliders! Credit: Courtesy of Laurent Grare / Scripps Institute of Oceanography

With the Wave Gliders repaired and deployed, we could again pursue our mission objectives. There was still considerable swell in the water from a historically large storm that had just passed through the region (which was accompanied by the well-publicized atmospheric river that brought so much rain and snow to northern California). In fact, the Saildrones in our campaign measured large significant wave heights during this storm! After the major storms passed, the Wave Gliders were deployed, and they are currently operating in unison with the other instruments in the campaign. The data has started to roll in!

I and several others in the campaign am interested in how surface waves interact with sub-mesoscale current features. For example, as waves turn as they approach the beach to be parallel to shore, sub-mesoscale currents steer the waves, sometimes leading to wave breaking in localized regions. These breaking waves are important for upper ocean dynamics and air-sea interactions: they generate spray and bubbles that are important for gas transfer between the atmosphere and ocean.  Historically, wave data has been viewed as measurement noise. But, with the emerging technologies being employed in S-MODE, scientists are excited about the possibility that wave information can tell us about the underlying currents.


Figure showing measurements from the Sail Drones of the significant wave heights.
Measurements from the Sail Drones of the significant wave heights. Figure courtesy of Bia Villas Boas / Caltech / Colorado School of Mines

For many of us, this experiment has been invigorating, bringing us back in touch with the excitement and discovery that comes with oceanographic field campaigns. There have been many excited conversations around a monitor, examining the data as it comes into our stations on shore. As an early career scientist, I feel as if I am taking part in a historical campaign. This is truly an exciting time to be an oceanographer.  

Researchers Kayli Matsuyoshi, Luke Colosi and Luc Lenain in the Air-Sea Interaction Laboratory at SIO discussing the latest S-MODE findings.
Researchers Kayli Matsuyoshi, Luke Colosi and Luc Lenain in the Air-Sea Interaction Laboratory at SIO discussing the latest S-MODE findings. Credit: Courtesy of Nick Pizzo




Unexpected Turbulence for the S-MODE Airborne Instruments

By Dragana Perkovic-Martin, Principal Investigator for DopplerScatt at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory // SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA //

Flight crew for October 25, 2021. From left to right: Delphine Hypolite (UCLA MOSES operator), Michael Stewart (Ames Research Center pilot), Tracy Phelps (Armstrong Flight Research Center – Armstrong Flight Research Center pilot) and Federica Polverari (JPL DopplerScatt operator). Photo credit: Hector Torres Guiterrez / NASA JPL


The first message I read this morning is that Ernesto, one of the deputy Principal Investigators on the S-MODE project and our project scientist for DopplerScatt, has succumbed to food poisoning. So, I am going to be making all of the decisions today. I guess I am ready…

We proceeded with our DopplerScatt morning meeting and made some tentative decisions about the flights this week and then went to the flight briefing to stress the importance of flight tracks today and what to nix in case of low fuel. As I was updating the S-MODE control center briefing package about the week’s forecast, Ernesto came back into play. One thing I can say is that we anticipated very well in the decisions we made in the early morning, so I guess I know how to impersonate!

Today’s flight plan focuses on the same area of the S-MODE polygon as last week – the  north-western boundary where the cold filament is collapsing under the warm water.

Underlying VIIRS sea surface temperature from Monday October 25th overlaid by NASA King Air B200 tracks in pink, Twin Otter tracks in black, and Saildrone region of operation (green and yellow rectangles). Red is warm water, green and blue are cooler water.
Credit: NASA S-MODE with Google Earth imagery

The flight is another combination of the King Air B200 and Twin Otter, with the Saildrones down below. All of our assets are active at this time! The first reports from the King Air B200 show the weather is favorable for another excellent day of data collection. 

But…  we had an unexpected power shutdown on board the aircraft for all instruments. While the power was restored immediately and the MOSES camera came back online quite quickly, the DopplerScatt instrument was slow to get out of bed. Typically, the instrument is powered before takeoff and we only enable radar signal transmission through the antenna once we are at safe altitude, which takes seconds. After about 20 minutes DopplerScatt was restored to its previous state and continued to collect data. We were thrilled on the ground and up in the air! Alas, that was not the end of our troubles… 

DopplerScatt requires precise knowledge of its position and orientation so that its radar data that it collects can be processed on board and on the ground. These data are what we call navigation data and they come from a Global Positioning System/Inertial Motion Unit (basically a GPS) instrument aboard the DopplerScatt instrument. After the power on, DopplerScatt was unable to process data onboard. Post landing data were transferred to a ground server where they will be evaluated for usability. 

Looking at the glass half full, the King Air B200 completed all of its planned flight tracks, and MOSES recovered from the power down and collected data almost uninterrupted. DopplerScatt at most lost 25% of its collection – which is not too shabby. We are hoping the planned flight for tomorrow will be less eventful than the one we had today. We like excitement, but not of this kind.

Hector Torres (JPL DopplerScatt operator) ready for the flight on October 26. Photo credit: Federica Polverari / NASA JPL


We are back at it and preparing for the new flight. Today’s plan was for DopplerScatt to survey a wider area to try and see which new feature the S-MODE experiment should focus on. After lots of discussion of how to manage a sudden shutdown onboard, Hector Torres is back at the DopplerScatt “driver seat” – this time on his own with the pilots because the weather is poor for optical measurements, so we decided not to use MOSES today.

DopplerScatt was reported as good to go and the aircraft took off. The next message was something that none really wanted to receive…. The aircraft was reporting a bleed air flow – essentially reporting that they would have pressurization issues. Rather serious stuff. We anxiously watched the aircraft descend and come back to Moffett Field, thankfully landing safely and Hector reported all was well with him and instrument. 

The next day we are in much better shape than yesterday! The aircraft has been repaired and is ready to go for the next flight. We have also recovered the navigation data from the flight on October 25, so now we know that we will be able to process all of the radar data from this flight. 


Federica Polverari (JPL DopplerScatt operator) waiting to board the NASA B200 King Air prior to flight on October 28th. Photo credit: Hector Torres Guieterrez / NASA JPL

At 1pm today we’re cleared for takeoff. Today’s data collection is at full strength, with all S-MODE assets collecting data. This is the first time during the campaign that we’re using all of the assets at once, so it is a big day. Of course – we are just learning how difficult it is to forecast fog…. While DopplerScatt and our in-water assets are fine, our optical remote sensing instruments MASS and MOSES are having a hard time today trying to find a place with good visibility. 

While the fog did create issues for the MOSES camera, DopplerScatt had a stellar day! The flight was centered on the new area of the S-MODE study area and we collected some very exciting data. DopplerScatt seems to have captured a cold front of water where we expected, but we need to upload the data into our computer to process it before we can tell if what we’re seeing is real, or if the DopplerScatt team has an overly active imagination.

Here is the happy crew and a few additional folks who joined the post-flight festivities!

Federica Polverari taking a selfie with the NASA B200 King Air crew for the day. From left to right: Jeff Borton (AFRC pilot), Alex Wineteer (JPL DopplerScatt operator and winds processing guru), Delphine Hypolite (UCLA MOSES operator), Tracy Phelps (AFRC pilot), Hector Torres (JPL DopplerScatt operator), Sommer Nichols (ARC Deputy Project Manager). Photo credit: Federica Polverari / NASA JPL


Talk about last minute changes….. Folks aboard the Twin Otter aircraft reported that they found an area with no fog, however that area was the one that the B200 King Air would visit last in today’s flight. If we wait  too long then the area may get covered by fog and clouds and MOSES would not be able to see through them. Thanks to our newly-installed satellite communication link on the B200 King Air, we messaged the pilots and asked that they change the order of the flight tracks today. Just after takeoff they confirmed this would be possible, and the science team went wild. The images we received from the flight tell us that we were correct to change this order – so phew! We are now glued to our screens following the flights as well as in-water measurements. Today we have the full set of gizmos in the field!

Delphine Hypolite (UCLA MOSES operator) and Karthik Srinivasan (JPL DopplerScatt operator) in flight on October 29. Photo credit: Karthik Srinivasan / NASA JPL

While flight planning and execution was very dynamic and fun, there was another great accomplishment today. We produced our “quick look” data images overnight! What we call quick look images are data products that we crunch as soon as possible after the flight, using the on-board processed data as a starting point. These results have not been through the full calibration and quality check rigor that we usually apply, so they are preliminary. However, they are very important so that the team gets an idea of what is happening, and the products are used for planning activities the next day. 

DopplerScatt preliminary “quick look” results for the October 28, 2021 data collection show estimated wind vectors over the study area. This wind field shows the wind stress is affected by the thermal feedback of the sea surface front shown by VIIRS, where winds slow down as they move across cooler water. Wind stress is also affected by kinematic feedback from the underlying surface currents. The near-instantaneous response of these scatterometer measured winds to the ocean implies a much stronger coupling between atmosphere and ocean than has previously been observed by lower resolution measurements. Credit: NASA S-MODE with imagery from Google Earth
DopplerScatt preliminary “quick look” results for October 28, 2021 showing estimated surface current vectors over the study area. A complex circulation established by the cold front was observed by DopplerScatt: southward flow in the north-western part, eastward flow in the eastern part, and zones of convergence in the center. Credit: NASA S-MODE with imagery from Google Earth


The hinge between the monitor and keyboard failed us today. Nothing that cannot be fixed, thankfully. It just seems that we need to give our DopplerScatt instrument some TLC when we are back in our lab. 

Today was another super successful collection at full S-MODE strength. The research vessel, Oceanus, made planned measurements while the Wave Gliders and Saildrones fought the currents and winds to make transects through the area of interest. The Twin Otter aircraft flew in concert with the B200 King Air and collected data spaced very close in time with DopplerScatt. The MOSES instrument managed some measurements in gaps between the clouds and fog. But the highlights of the day were the quick look products from DopplerScatt within an hour and a half from the collection – all hail our data processing gurus Alex and Ernesto!


While many were out trick-or-treating for Hallowen, the B200 King Air gave us several tricks. Several issues sprung up, however, due to some rather swift actions of the ground crew the takeoff delay amounted to only a half hour. DopplerScatt collected data at the same time as the Twin Otter flights and MASS instrument collections, so we have lots of intercomparisons to look forward to. 

Tomorrow is a down day for the crew to rest. There will be no flight so we can ensure that we can fly every day for the rest of the campaign.

NASA B200 King Air ground and air crew from left to right: Sam Habbal (AFRC ground crew), Karthik Srinivasan (JPL DopplerScatt operator), Alex Wineteer (JPL DopplerScatt operator), Tracy Phelps (AFRC pilot), Delphine Hypolite (UCLA MOSES operator), David Carbajal (AFRC ground crew), Leroy Marsh (AFRC Inspector) and Tom Lynn (ARC ground crew). Photo credit: Erin Czech / NASA Ames Research Center

Liftoff! Aircraft Experiments Take Flight for NASA’s S-MODE Mission

By Dragana Perkovic-Martin, Principal Investigator for DopplerScatt at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory // SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA //

The first of three aircraft participating in the S-MODE campaign has arrived at Moffett Field in California. The NASA King Air B200 aircraft, carrying two science instruments – DopplerScatt and MOSES – landed on October 18th and is preparing for its first flight early in the morning on October 19th. The weather conditions have been changing and incoming storms in northern California are throwing a wrench into our planning for the airborne part of the campaign. 

NASA King Air B200 aircraft on arrival at Ames Research Center carrying DopplerScatt and MOSES instruments. Credit: Erin Czech / NASA Ames Research Center.
NASA King Air B200 aircraft on arrival at Ames Research Center carrying DopplerScatt and MOSES instruments. Credit: Erin Czech / NASA Ames Research Center.

My name is Dragana Perkovic-Martin and I am the Principal Investigator for DopplerScatt, an instrument that simultaneously measures ocean vector winds and surface currents. DopplerScatt is a key part of the S-MODE Earth Ventures Suborbital Project. The instrument is currently aboard NASA’s King Air B200 aircraft  to collect data for the S-MODE mission. Meanwhile, I am at my pseudo control center at home,  following every minute of the deployment, acting as a point of contact for aircraft communications, and jumping in when things go south with DopplerScatt.

DopplerScatt is a radar and as such it is perfectly happy operating in cloudy conditions since its signals can penetrate the clouds, but it needs the wind to roughen the ocean surface for good data quality. Unlike DopplerScatt, the other instrument aboard this aircraft – MOSES – is an optical instrument (infrared camera to be more precise). That means MOSES can only collect data in clear weather, so no clouds. While high winds and no clouds are not mutually exclusive, the current weather outlook for the week is not great. The science team will have to closely follow forecasts and models and decide at the last moment whether the aircraft should take off. It will be a week at the edge of our seats! 

Ready for flight! Hector Torres Gutierrez (JPL) and Delphine Hypolite (UCLA), DopplerScatt and MOSES operators, ready to board the King Air B200 for the first S-MODE pilot campaign flight. Note just left of the aircraft stairs is the DopplerScatt white cone radome (radar signal transparent material).
Ready for flight! Hector Torres Gutierrez (JPL) and Delphine Hypolite (UCLA), DopplerScatt and MOSES operators, ready to board the King Air B200 for the first S-MODE pilot campaign flight. Note just left of the aircraft stairs is the DopplerScatt white cone radome (radar signal transparent material). Credit: NASA

On Tuesday morning, the King Air B200 took off at 8:20 am for a reconnaissance flight of the S-MODE area. The weather front was coming in and so it was a race between the aircraft and the clouds. The first reports from the aircraft operators were good: the winds were high enough for DopplerScatt to get good data and MOSES was managing to capture data through gaps in the cloud cover.

A little over four hours later, the King Air B200 landed, delivering the precious data “cargo” to the hangar at NASA Ames, where the DopplerScatt processing machine is housed. The images from the real-time processor aboard the aircraft promise a really good data set.  The satellite data obtained by the science team is capturing a very interesting ocean circulation feature within the S-MODE sampling area and the science team is abuzz trying to reposition the autonomous marine robots to capture the feature. 

Sea surface temperature images from the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) instrument show a warm water intrusion propagating into the S-MODE area (black polygon) from the western boundary and a cold water filament propagating into the S-MODE area from the northwestern boundary.  Left image obtained on October 18th 2021, right image corresponding to October 19th 2021. Credit: NASA
Sea surface temperature images from the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) instrument show a warm water intrusion propagating into the S-MODE area (black polygon) from the western boundary and a cold water filament propagating into the S-MODE area from the northwestern boundary. Left image obtained on October 18th 2021, right image corresponding to October 19th 2021. Credit: NASA

While we prepare for the second flight of the NASA King Air B200 this afternoon, the media is having a field day – coming along to watch, photograph and film our experiments. Today’s flight is aimed at mapping the ocean feature that has formed in the past few days in the northern end of the S-MODE sampling area. The winds are forecast to be just high enough for DopplerScatt to perform its measurements. 

Federica Polverari (JPL DopplerScatt operator) in action during S-MODE media day. Credit: NASA
Federica Polverari (JPL DopplerScatt operator) in action during S-MODE media day. Credit: NASA

Meanwhile, back at my home control center, I’m using a software called FlightAware to track the aircraft while in flight. The display can include weather, and today this shows a patchwork of rain and clouds out there. Fingers crossed that it is not raining at the collection site, as DopplerScatt’s signal is attenuated in rain.

After the plane took off and arrived at the data collection area, we lost communication as the satellite connection must have been affected by weather in the area. 

We get one more good flight for the DopplerScatt instrument, but it’s bad luck for MOSES. The cloud cover was thick and extended from approximately 5,000 to 24,000 feet, making it impossible for the camera to image the ocean surface. Perhaps we’ll have better luck Friday when cloud conditions appear to be favorable for an early morning flight. 

NASA’s King Air B200 aircraft fueling pre-flight on a rainy morning at Moffett Field in California. Credit: NASA
NASA’s King Air B200 aircraft fueling pre-flight on a rainy morning at Moffett Field in California. Credit: NASA

There was lots of excitement in the pre-flight instrument power on, as one of the DopplerScatt servers had trouble booting. The DopplerScatt team mobilized over the phone and resolved the issue – sigh of relief! The whole team is glued to their cell phones in the morning, and we may have to investigate the issue upon landing. 

Today’s flight is the first combo experiment of the campaign. The NASA King Air B200 and the Twin Otter  aircraft will be flying, carrying the MASS instrument operated by the Scripps Institute of Oceanography (SIO), in addition to autonomous Saildrones and recently ship-deployed drifters. The Saildrones have been sampling the area overnight and are reporting a disappearance of the cold filament. The science folks suspect that the warmer water has pushed the cold filament deeper because it’s not as visible from overhead. 

October 22nd 2021 flight tracks by the Twin Otter (red lines) and King Air B200 (blue lines) superimposed on the sea surface temperature map, ship, and saildrone data collected overnight.
October 22nd 2021 flight tracks by the Twin Otter (red lines) and King Air B200 (blue lines) superimposed on the sea surface temperature map, ship, and Saildrone data collected overnight.

After a frantic back and forth during the flight to identify the source of monitor malfunction on DopplerScatt, things have settled back to normal. The flight was executed successfully and we will perform some more ground trouble-shooting to make sure that DopplerScatt is ready for the next flight, which will probably be on Monday October 25th.

Hector and Delphine, the instrument operators flying aboard the King Air B200, shared their impressions of the flights from their high-altitude view: 

“The plane flew offshore West of San Francisco and after a cloudy and turbulent takeoff, the ocean appeared perfectly clear at the altitude of 26,000 ft. Operating smoothly thanks to both skills and practice, in coordination with the pilots, we traced an array over the ocean and collected great quality data. When we saw oceanic structures with clean, sharp gradients appearing on our screens we were overjoyed!  The months of preparations were starting to pay off. These structures are exactly what we have come to measure. The other aircraft, the Twin Otter, has also joined the data collection and will provide a very useful data comparison. The plane tracks were successfully changed to optimize the overlap of the two data sets. What a great day for S-MODE,” they told me.

Now quiet resumes while the data are being processed by our teammates. That’s a wrap for the first week of the S-MODE pilot campaign airborne activities!

Landsat Launch Brings City of Lompoc Together

Landsat team members from NASA, partner agencies and companies, and the city of Lompoc cut the ceremonial ribbon to dedicate the Landsat mural in downtown Lompoc, California on September 26. Credit: NASA / Jessica Evans

By Jessica Merzdorf Evans //LOMPOC, CALIFORNIA//

In early 2021, local artist (and Lompoc Mural Society curator) Ann Thompson competed in and won the call for artists to commemorate Landsat 9’s launch and the Landsat program’s 50th anniversary. Along with representatives from NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey, United Launch Alliance, and the city of Lompoc, Thompson helped dedicate the mural for its official opening on September 26, 2021, one day before Landsat 9’s launch.

Artist Ann Thompson poses with her newly-dedicated “50th Anniversary of Landsat” mural in downtown Lompoc, California. Credit: NASA / Jessica Evans

Lompoc, California, has a lot of murals — 40 and counting, according to the city’s website. Some depict local flora and fauna, some show important events and people in the city’s history. The new mural depicts a stylized Landsat 9 orbiting Earth, with colorful pull-out frames showing Landsat images of changing glaciers, bright landscapes, and Santa Barbara County, California – home of Lompoc and Vandenberg Space Force Base. Another pull-out in the corner shows the timeline of the Landsat program, from Landsat 1’s launch in 1972 through Landsat 9.

This image shows the timeline of Landsat launches, from Landsat 1 in 1972 through Landsat 9 in 2021. Credit: NASA / Matthew Radcliff

The city of Lompoc sponsored or highlighted a number of events in the week leading up to launch, including workshops, educational events, talks, and art exhibits. 

At the Lompoc Aquatic Center across town, educators from the Landsat and ICESat-2 teams (Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite-2) demonstrated how their two missions track land and sea ice around the world. 

Landsat education outreach coordinator Allison Nussbaum shares Landsat materials and information with a family at the Lompoc Aquatic Center on September 26. Credit: NASA / Jessica Evans
ICESat-2 outreach lead Valerie Casasanto places an inflatable penguin into the pool at the Lompoc Aquatic Center on September 26th. Casasanto and her Landsat colleagues ran demonstrations on land and sea ice at the aquatic center as part of the outreach events surrounding Landsat 9’s launch. Credit: NASA / Jessica Evans

Launching a new satellite to space is often more than just a scientific achievement – it can be a community-wide event that gives educators, artists, and local citizens a chance to be part of the celebration. This week, the city of Lompoc is helping to paint a picture of the Landsat program’s future.