Meet NASA’s Coral Reef Hyperspectral Heroes

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Coral Reef Airborne Laboratory (CORAL)

From left: CORAL crew members Scott Nolte, Justin Haag and Ernesto Diaz work with the Portable Remote Imaging Spectrometer’s (PRISM) field health assessment kit, which assesses PRISM’s performance between flights. Credit: NASA/Alan Buis

by Alan Buis / Cairns, North Queensland, Australia /

On a non-flight day this week, I had a chance to chat with some of the crew from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who are here in Australia to support the Coral Reef Airborne Laboratory’s (CORAL) Great Barrier Reef deployment about their roles in the mission.

Ernesto Diaz is CORAL’s project system engineer and mission campaign manager. He joined JPL in 2010 and is currently in JPL’s imaging spectroscopy group, working on PRISM and other spectrometer instrument programs that are pathfinders to develop technology for a planned NASA satellite called the Hyperspectral Infrared Imager.

Among Diaz’s responsibilities is to assess the weather each day to determine if a flight will be attempted. The team’s routine includes daily 6 a.m. weather assessment briefings. Diaz bases his assessments and recommendations on data from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology.

“I’m not a meteorologist,” he said. “But I’ve come to understand weather patterns well. A key is assessing how weather patterns are going to evolve over the course of a typical CORAL flight over the Great Barrier Reef, which can run from three to six hours.”

Ernesto Diaz looks to weather forecasts from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology to determine if a CORAL flight will happen on any given day. Credit: NASA/Alan Buis

CORAL project system engineer Ernesto Diaz looks to weather forecasts from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology to determine if a CORAL flight will happen on any given day. Credit: NASA/Alan Buis

Because PRISM is a passive imaging system, meaning that it records the amount of light energy reflected back to it from Earth’s surface, it requires a cloud-free view to the ground below. CORAL’s science requirements state that cloud cover over a target area must be less than 20 percent, including clouds both below and above the plane. Winds must also be light, because strong winds create chop on the sea surface that interferes with PRISM’s performance.

Diaz said PRISM has two flight opportunities each day: one in the morning and one in the afternoon. On days when the initial 6 a.m. forecast looks favorable, the team is given a go to turn the PRISM instrument on. A second weather go/no-go call is then made at 8 a.m. prior to a takeoff at 8:30 a.m. Morning opportunities are typically better for winds.

The CORAL Great Barrier Reef deployment requires collecting data from 10 regions over the reef, and the PRISM aircraft is limited to a total of 48 flight hours. Because weather and technical delays are unpredictable, the CORAL mission has allotted a full two months to collect the necessary data. “There’s no reason to rush and get bad data,” he said. “We want to get the best possible data on flight days. When we don’t fly, it’s an opportunity to do routine maintenance.”

Diaz says CORAL is his favorite project since he’s been involved with it since its inception and he designed all the flight lines for the campaign. Imaging spectrometers have taken him not only to the Pacific, but to Chile and India as well. On the team’s day off this week, he and his wife went to Kuranda Koala Gardens, about 45 minutes north of Cairns, and got to hold and pet a koala. “It’s a perk of the job,” he said.

Technician Scott Nolte built hardware for PRISM’s high-powered UNIX-based electronics subsystem, which has the highest signal-to-noise ratio performance of all of JPL’s imaging spectrometers.

Nolte

CORAL technician Scott Nolte works with PRISM’s field health assessment kit. Credit: NASA/Alan Buis

Nolte has worked at JPL for 33 years, 15 of them in the lab’s imaging spectroscopy group. He said he’s seen a lot of growth.

“For the first seven or eight years I was in the group, we only had the Airborne Visible/Infrared Imaging Spectrometer (AVIRIS) Classic instrument. Now we have multiple hyperspectral imager programs.”

For Nolte, a typical day in the field with PRISM consists of cooling the instrument’s camera down and stabilizing its temperature two hours before takeoff, as well as any required troubleshooting as necessary.

Nolte’s work has taken him to places like Hawaii; Norway; Punta Arenas, Chile; St. Croix; and Marathon in the Florida Keys. This is his first visit to Australia. “PRISM gets some pretty sweet deployments,” he said.

Justin Haag is PRISM’s optical engineer. His job is to make sure the PRISM instrument is working and ready. The Illinois native and graduate of Northern Illinois University and UC San Diego joined JPL two years ago.

CORAL optical engineer Justin Haag examines PRISM's electronics rack. Credit: NASA/Alan Buis

CORAL optical engineer Justin Haag examines PRISM’s electronics rack. Credit: NASA/Alan Buis

When I caught up with Haag, he, Diaz and Nolte were making hardware adjustments to part of PRISM’s field health assessment kit. Unlike calibration tests, which are performed on PRISM both before and after its mission campaigns, the field health assessment kit is used to periodically assess PRISM’s performance between flights. It consists of a sphere attached to PRISM’s external camera port on the exterior of the Gulfstream IV aircraft. Two different types of lamps are shined into the sphere, which bounces the light around the sphere’s white, coated interior to create a uniform light input for PRISM to measure.

A previous health assessment test last week had detected some light leaking into the sphere through exterior gaps in the kit fixture’s hardware. The team’s solution? They covered the gaps with black tape. Think of it as an adult version of the arts and crafts we all did in elementary school.

Not every problem requires a high-tech solution. Just a little old-fashioned ingenuity.

NASA’s CORAL Mission Journeys to Oz

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Menu board

A sampling of the local Cairns cuisine. Credit: NASA/Alan Buis

by Alan Buis / CAIRNS, NORTH QUEENSLAND, AUSTRALIA /

G’day from Australia!

With the successful June campaign readiness tests in Hawaii behind them, NASA’s Coral Reef Airborne Laboratory (CORAL) team has rolled up their sleeves and are now hard at work shedding new light on our understanding of Earth’s coral reef ecosystems. The team’s first stop: Australia’s majestic Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest reef ecosystem.

For this NASA Earth Expeditions reporter, the first thing I learned is that getting to Oz isn’t as easy as clicking your heels. I quickly grasped a new appreciation for just how vast the Pacific Ocean is: a 15-hour flight from LA, literally heading into the future, 17 hours ahead of when I left. After arriving in Sydney, it was another almost three-hour flight up the coast of Queensland to Cairns (pronounced “Cans”).

Yet as long as my travel odyssey was, it was even longer for some others on the CORAL team. For example, the crew of the Tempus Applied Solutions Gulfstream IV plane carrying CORAL’s NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory-built Portable Remote Imaging Spectrometer (PRISM) instrument began its journey in Maine; CORAL Principal Investigator Eric Hochberg and his wife traveled from the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences.

The Gulfstream IV plane carrying CORAL’s Portable Remote Imaging Spectrometer (PRISM) instrument sits in Hawker Pacific's hangar at Cairns Airport.

The Gulfstream IV plane carrying the Coral Reef Airborne Laboratory’s (CORAL) Portable Remote Imaging Spectrometer (PRISM) instrument sits in Hawker Pacific’s hangar at Cairns Airport. Credit: NASA/Alan Buis

Cairns is a city of 160,000, located in tropical North Queensland. It is popularly known as the Gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. Overlooking a bay and surrounded by green hills with exotic flora and fauna, Cairns is a major tourist destination, filled with hotels, restaurants and attractions. To my disappointment, I’ve yet to encounter a single kangaroo, wallaby, emu or koala, but I have met a lot of friendly people. The bay does contain crocodiles; the boardwalk on the esplanade has signs warning people not to swim there.

Bay

A view of the crocodile-populated bay in Cairns. Credit: NASA/Alan Buis

Through October, the Gulfstream IV plane and its support team will be based here, closely monitoring the weather daily in search of the optimal clear sky and light wind conditions required for CORAL to collect its data. The team will survey six discrete sections across the length of the Great Barrier Reef.

The in-water science team calibrating and validating the airborne measurements from PRISM from two locations on the reef arrived in Cairns Sept. 1 and transited to Lizard Island, its first location, on Sept. 3. The team successfully conducted its in-water science validation operations there from Sept. 4. to Sept. 12. Over the next few days, most of the science team will depart for Heron Island, the other calibration/validation location.

The plane and its team arrived in Cairns Sept. 2 and set up residence at the Hawker Pacific Fixed Base Operations facility at Cairns Airport. Following a hard down day (day off) on Sept. 3 for the plane and crew, the team unloaded the aircraft and ran through all the procedures required for flight, including loading all 121 flight data lines PRISM will acquire over the reef into the pilot’s flight planning system. The aircraft’s systems were checked and the PRISM instrument was powered on and thermally stabilized.

And then the flight team waited for the weather to cooperate. And waited. And waited.

View of cloudy skies.

A view from the Gulfstream IV plane as it flew over significant cloud cover above the Great Barrier Reef, delaying science flights for several days. Credit: NASA/Alan Buis

Following several days of weather scrubs, on Sept. 9 weather conditions were favorable over Lizard Island, and the team was given the go to fly. In their four-hour flight, the first operational flight of the CORAL mission, the team collected 14 lines of data, which were subsequently removed from the plane and downloaded and processed on the field server. On Saturday, Sept. 10, flush with the success of the previous day’s flight and with a somewhat favorable weather forecast in one of the data collection areas, the team prepared to fly again. They took off, bound for the Townsville coast area, but cloudiness forced them to return to base. Since then, weather has continued to not cooperate and no more flights have been conducted.

Today at Cairns Airport, the CORAL team will hold an event for Australian media and dignitaries from a number of Australian science organizations, where they will discuss the CORAL Great Barrier Reef campaign and reveal some of their initial data from the successful flight on Sept. 9.

Solo Science Flying at 65,000 Feet

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by Ellen Gray / WALVIS BAY, NAMIBIA /

Stu Broce loves flying high.

“The view is incredible. You can see 300 miles away,” he said from the cockpit of NASA’s high-altitude ER-2 research aircraft. “You can see the curvature of the Earth. If you look up, the sky is very dark blue.”

Of course, for the ORACLES mission now in Namibia studying low-level clouds and aerosols over the south-east Atlantic Ocean, the view of never-ending white is not going to be quite so exciting for the pilots, he added with a grin. There’s more to flying high than the view.

Pilot Stu Broce in the cockpit of the ER-2. On a flight day he’ll be wearing a spacesuit to protect him from low pressures at high altitude. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

Pilot Stu Broce in the cockpit of the ER-2. On a flight day he’ll be wearing a spacesuit to protect him from low pressures at high altitude. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

“I kind of like the solitude, too. It’s my happy place. No matter what’s going on in my life, when I close the canopy, and especially when I leave the ground, I know I’ve got 12 hours of alone time. Busy alone time,” Broce said.

A retired Navy pilot, Broce flew commercial for nearly a year before post-9/11 furloughs led him back to the military, this time the Air Force, where he learned to fly the high altitude aircraft. As luck would have it, around the time he was retiring, NASA was hiring, and Broce has been flying the ER-2, as well as other aircraft, for NASA for the last five years at Armstrong Flight Research Center in California. He’s one of two pilots flying the ER-2 for the ORACLES mission this month.

NASA’s ER-2 lands at Walvis Bay Airport, Namibia. Behind it is the chase car driven by the second ER-2 pilot with a radio to be an extra pair of eyes for landing. Credit: NASA/Brian Rheingans

NASA’s ER-2 lands at Walvis Bay Airport, Namibia. Behind it is the chase car driven by the second ER-2 pilot with a radio to be an extra pair of eyes for landing. Credit: NASA/Brian Rheingans

It’s a challenging aircraft to fly. Landing in particular. “It’s like landing a big 30,000 pound bicycle,” he said. The ER-2’s two main sets of wheels are under the body. The wheels that prop up the wings on the ground drop off during take-off and don’t fly.

The ER-2 is a small, lightweight airplane with a single occupant: the pilot. Its job is to get the long view of the clouds below. Tucked into its nose, body and a pod under each wing, the ER-2 carries four remote-sensing instruments to 65,000 feet, twice the altitude of commercial airliners.

“The only people higher than us are the astronauts in the space station,” said Broce. “We fly so high, we fly above Armstrong’s line at 60 to 62,000 feet, where if you took a cup of water at altitude outside the plane, the water would boil just because of the low pressure there, even though it’s super cold.”

People don’t do so well at those low pressures. The pilots wear space suits that will pressurize in case of a loss of cabin pressure. Part of their prep is to breathe pure oxygen for an hour before flight to purge the nitrogen from their bodies so they don’t get the bends when they ascend so quickly. Food and water for the eight plus hours in flight both come through a tube – applesauce, pear-sauce, and peach-sauce are among Broce’s favorites, which he said are actually pretty good.

The ER-2 in the hangar at Walvis Bay Airport. The pod under the visible wing is open where a science instrument is installed. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

The ER-2 in the hangar at Walvis Bay Airport. The pod under the visible wing is open where a science instrument is installed. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

The instruments, on the other hand, do great at 12 miles above the Earth. While they’re not as high as satellites, some of the instruments simulate satellite measurements. Aboard the ER-2 they both test out new technology and software and get the equivalent of satellite data right where the scientists want it.

The science team is trying to understand the interaction of clouds and tiny airborne particles – smoke from fires central Africa – and how they change the amount of energy absorbed or reflected from the clouds, a key component for assessing how clouds affect Earth’s climate.

Brian Cairns of Goddard’s Institute for Space Studies works on the Aerosol Polarimetry Sensor in the pod under the ER-2 wing. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

Brian Cairns of Goddard’s Institute for Space Studies works on the Aerosol Polarimetry Sensor in the pod under the ER-2 wing. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

Broce helps out with gathering the data. The instruments are as fully automated as can be, but he still needs to turn them on after take-off and sometimes during flight switch their modes.

“I like to count the number of button presses per hour. It’s ‘BPH’ — my term. If it’s above ten, I consider that busy because you have to read checklists and know when to hit the button and check miles and time and locations. We also have to navigate and fly the plane, sometimes to precise navigation or headings, and then push the buttons.”

At the end of the day, the goal is to return measurements to scientists waiting on the ground.

For more on Broce’s work as ER-2 pilot for ORACLES, visit Notes From the Field: ORACLES in Namibia 2016.

(Note: This wraps up our reporting from Namibia. Click here for all the ORACLES blog reports.)

 

 

Into Africa Seeking the Desert Sun

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by Ellen Gray / GOBABEB, NAMIBIA /

Brent Holben stands in the shade of his car’s hatchback door, squinting at his phone. He’s checking Google Maps. From the dirt parking lot at the Walvis Bay Airport, Namibia, he temporarily has free internet access to the NASA wifi hotspot set up for NASA’s ORACLES airborne science campaign here.

“I don’t want to make a wrong turn,” he says. “Of course out here, that’s pretty hard. There’s not many turns.”

Gobabeb Research and Training Centre in Namibia. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

Gobabeb Research and Training Centre in Namibia. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

With a trim gray beard and brimmed hat, Holben, a scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is in charge of the ground sites that will measure aerosols to complement observations made by ORACLES’s two research aircraft.

Today, Holben is heading out on a road trip southeast of Walvis Bay to the Gobabeb Research and Training Centre, 40 miles as the crow flies from the coast. There, perched atop a short tower, is one of Holben’s aerosol measuring instruments, a sun photometer that is part of the Aerosol Robotic Network. AERONET, which began in 1992 with two sensors, now has 600 sensors worldwide, but not as many in Africa as Holben would like.

Brent Holben, project scientist for the Aerosol Robotic Network (AERONET) from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

Brent Holben, project scientist for the Aerosol Robotic Network (AERONET) from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

“Africa is a giant place, and it’s underrepresented compared to Europe and the United States.” Holben is the AERONET project scientist.

As ORACLES was being planned to make measurements of aerosols over the southeast Atlantic Ocean from aircraft, he originally drafted plans for two AERONET instruments in Namibia that would study aerosols from the ground. He ended up setting up ten.

A sun photometer has one job: to look at the sun to see how many aerosols are between it and the ground by measuring the light energy that reaches the instrument.

The AERONET sun photometer at Gobabeb points at the sun and measures the light energy that reaches it. Since scientists know how much energy the sun produces at the top of the atmosphere, any difference measured by the instrument at the ground is caused by "stuff" – aerosols like smoke, dust, and sea salt – between the top of the atmosphere and the ground. From that scientists can calculate aerosol concentrations in the atmosphere. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

The AERONET sun photometer at Gobabeb points at the sun and measures the light energy that reaches it. Since scientists know how much energy the sun produces at the top of the atmosphere, any difference measured by the instrument at the ground is caused by “stuff” – aerosols like smoke, dust, and sea salt – between the top of the atmosphere and the ground. From that scientists can calculate aerosol concentrations in the atmosphere. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

“If the set-up weren’t simple, I wouldn’t do it,” Holben said of the solar-powered instrument.

But simple doesn’t mean without complications. One reason Holben is visiting Gobabeb is because he’s concerned about the instrument shutting down unnecessarily due to the region’s characteristic fog.

The sky is overcast on our drive south, which is not uncommon along the Namibian coast. Early morning fog develops when warm air condenses over the cold ocean water, and then it rolls over the length of the coast and inland. It’s the main source of water for much of the vegetation that grows where it can across the plain.

Not far from the airport the asphalt disappears and we’re driving on a dirt road. To either side the rocky desert is white-beige and flat, textured with small rocks and dotted with occasional buildings that grow fewer and farther between.

On the horizon ahead, great sand dunes appear, first as bumps, then looking like orange mountains. Eventually, a green strip comes into view at the base of the dunes. Holben points out as the green strip resolves into trees. “That’s the river.”

The river is the Kuiseb (pronounced kwee-sib), and it’s dry for most of the year.  During the rainy season from November to January or so, it may have water for a few months, replenishing the groundwater for the trees – and everything that eats their leaves – to live on for the rest of the year.

The road turns east and from here parallels the river into the Namib-Naukluft Park and to Gobabeb Centre where it dead-ends. Along the way are the farms of the local Topnaar community, which has lived along the Kuiseb for the past 600 years. Many have day jobs in Walvis Bay to supplement their living. Along the river they raise cattle and other livestock.

House in the desert near the Kuiseb River. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

House in the desert near the Kuiseb River. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

“It’s a harsh existence. You’ve got to admire people who eke out a living here,” said Gillian Maggs-Kölling, the Gobabeb Centre’s executive director. The centre is located next to three ecosystems: the rocky plain, the linear oasis of the river, and the 1,000-foot sand dunes that roll into the Sand Sea to the south.

Maggs-Kölling is a biologist, as are most of the 18 researchers and students who live and work there. It’s an international mix, with students from the Namibian University of Science and Technology joined currently by a group from the University of Basel in Switzerland, and a handful of others from various other European and American universities.

The main building with labs and offices is surrounded by a spread of low cottages and gardens of scientific instruments measuring temperature, moisture, and a dozen other things. Completely off-grid, the site is powered by solar panels with the occasional help of a generator.

This is Holben’s third trip to Gobabeb, one each year since setting up the AERONET sensor here.

“We came here because we didn’t have an instrument in this part of the world. The Namib Desert is quite unique because it is influenced by fog,” said Holben. He and the ORACLES team hope to learn how the aerosols they’re measuring affect the fog and the clouds over the ocean.

We meet Monja Gerber, a relatively new technician and Masters student in plant physiology from North West University in South Africa, who is taking care of the instrument this year.

Brent Holben walks Monja Gerber through maintaining the AERONET instrument at Gobabeb. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

Brent Holben walks Monja Gerber through maintaining the AERONET instrument at Gobabeb. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

Atop the two-story tower where the AERONET instrument sits, Holben shows Gerber a few maintenance tricks. The instruments tube is open and sometimes spiders or bees like to make homes in them, he points out. Holben shows her how to disconnect the wet sensor that triggers when fog collects on it.

As the day warms, morning fog that rolls in from the coast clears. Using its own GPS location and the time of day to find the sun, the AERONET photometer spins into action.

“We’re looking at two main aerosols in this region. Dust blown from the desert is one, which is actually a very small component. The big one is smoke from fires in central Africa. These are man-made agricultural fires as people clear their land at this time of year,” said Holben.

Westerly winds take the smoke from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia, and Angola, and carry it out over the southeast Atlantic, where ORACLES’s two research aircraft measure it to see how the smoke changes sunlight absorption or reflection – important to know for understanding and predicting climate change. That smoke arcs back to Namibia on south-easterly winds.

“We’ve been watching the aerosols day by day for ORACLES,” Holben said of both the measurements here at Gobabeb and the six sensors that are set up in Henties Bay, an hour north of Swakopmund. “Over the last several days, the optical depth went from almost background conditions to – yesterday – moderately high.”

Light scattered by the smoke aerosols makes sunsets here red, Holben added.

The sunset is spectacular. Holben and his son Sam, who accompanied him on the trip, cross the river and climb to the top of the nearby dune to watch. They leave with barely enough time, and Sam, not wanting to miss it, runs ahead and picks the steepest ascent.

Brent Holben and his son, Sam, hiking toward the top of a dune to catch the sunset. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

Brent Holben and his son, Sam, hiking toward the top of a dune to catch the sunset. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

Climbing a dune of fine sand is not easy, and he slides down nearly as much as he climbs, but persistence gets him to the top. Holben takes a less-steep approach and settles in for the show.

From the top, the Namibian landscape stretches as far as the eye can see, changing colors as the sun sinks behind the dunes in the west. The stars slowly come out and the Southern Hemisphere constellations brilliantly shine beneath the sweep of the Milky Way.

Sunset at Gobabeb, Namibia. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

Sunset at Gobabeb, Namibia. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

 

On the ‘Positively Radiant’ Research Flight

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by Ellen Gray / WALVIS BAY, NAMIBIA /

The ORACLES science team is in southern Africa to fly.

The bulk of their work is done in the narrow confines of the stocky P-3 aircraft amid racks of customized instruments. In the coming weeks these instruments will be complemented by remote sensors on the high-altitude ER-2 aircraft. But while the ER-2 team waits for the arrival of their specialized fuel, the science flight on September 2 is all P-3.

For this 8:00 a.m. flight, wake up time is early but you wouldn’t know it for the palpable sense of excitement the scientists have as they board the plane. This is the first “flight of opportunity;” the theme: It’s Positively Radiant Research. The flight will focus on the energy balance of the clouds over the ocean: how much light are clouds reflecting or absorbing as they interact with the smoke aerosols that travel from agricultural fires in central Africa.

David Noone of Oregon State and Ken Sinclair of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies are measuring the isoptopic fingerprint of water vapor that can tell them how much aerosols and clouds are mixing together. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

David Noone of Oregon State (left) and Ken Sinclair of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies onboard the P-3 research aircraft are measuring the isoptopic fingerprint of water vapor that can tell them how much aerosols and clouds are mixing together. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

The inside of the P-3 looks like a laboratory with big boxy instruments in front of airline seats. Twenty-four scientists can fly at a time with more than a dozen instruments. Once everyone’s aboard, ears safely covered by noise-cancelling headphones, the turboprop engines fire up. The P-3 taxis down the runway and takes off.

NASA’s P-3 research aircraft, ready to fly from Walvis Bay, Namibia. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

NASA’s P-3 research aircraft, ready to fly from Walvis Bay, Namibia. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

 The inside of the P-3 holds racks of science instruments and their science teams. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

The inside of the P-3 holds racks of science instruments and their science teams. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

This is a LOUD plane – deafening, in fact. The headsets have the dual role of hearing protection and allowing everyone on board to communicate, reporting real-time observations. Sebastian Schmidt of the University of Colorado, Boulder is the flight scientist  today. Sitting up front, his is the single voice speaking to the pilots, relaying any requests for adjustments in the flight path that come from the instrument teams.

The pilots, Mike Singer and Mark Russell of NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, have final say on the flight path. They are responsible for the safety of the plane and its occupants. With hundreds of science flight hours under their belts, they’re very familiar with how scientists like to fly. Today it’s in tight spirals from the top of the smoke layer and clouds to near the ocean surface to see what the air is doing along a vertical column.

Sebastian Schmidt of the University of Colorado Boulder is the flight scientist on Sept. 2 keeping track of all activities aboard the P-3. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

Sebastian Schmidt of the University of Colorado Boulder is the flight scientist on Sept. 2 keeping track of all activities aboard the P-3. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

On this eight-hour flight, though, the science team channel isn’t all business. “Who still needs a nickname?” Sam LeBlanc of NASA’s Ames Research Center in charge of the 4STAR instrument asked at one point.

A number of the flying scientists apparently still do. Among them, Sabrina Cochrane, a second-year grad student at the University of Colorado, Boulder, manning the Solar Spectral Flux Radiometer. This is her first research flight.

“I was really nervous,” she said after the flight. “I thought I was going to feel sick the whole time with all the spirals, but I didn’t. It was really smooth. It was a lot more fun than I expected.”

 For Sabrina Cochrane of the University of Colorado Boulder, this is her first research flight. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

For Sabrina Cochrane of the University of Colorado Boulder, this is her first research flight. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

Flying between the spiral locations, the Airborne Precipitation Radar team was on the look-out for another high-flyer: the CloudSat satellite in space, which was scheduled to make a pass over the same region the P-3 was flying. This radar measures cloud droplet sizes and numbers, validating the same measurements taken from space by CloudSat’s radar.

The satellite overpass was not exactly over the flight path, but close enough, said Steve Durden of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Even if they’re not perfectly aligned you’ll see the same structures in the clouds,” he said.

The final maneuvers of the day occur during the last hour of flight on the way back to Walvis Bay Airport. David Noone of Oregon State University explained that these maneuvers are for the instruments, to find out how different orientations of the aircraft affect the measurements.

P-3 pilot Mike Singer from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility guides the aircraft through maneuvers designed to collect maximum measurements of aerosols and clouds. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

P-3 pilot Mike Singer from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility guides the aircraft through maneuvers designed to collect maximum measurements of aerosols and clouds. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

“My measurements, the water vapor and the water vapor isotope measurements, are a good example of this. We’re bringing in air from outside through an inlet that must be pointing directly forward into the flow. If it’s slightly off, the number of cloud droplets that enter the inlet might vary,” he said.

To test out the orientations the pilots will wiggle the tail of the aircraft, roll side to side, and go up and down like they’re going over a hill.

“Now some of these are good fun,” said Noone, “but we’re sitting here in the back of the aircraft. We’re way out in the tail so we’re going to get a good ride.”

NASA’s P-3 flies above clouds over the southeast Atlantic ocean to study their interactions with smoke. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

NASA’s P-3 flies above clouds over the southeast Atlantic ocean to study their interactions with smoke. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

 

 

Andrew Dzambo from the University of Wisconsin (left) and Steve Durden from NASA’s Jet Propulsion laboratory monitor the Airborne Precipitation Radar which measures cloud droplet size aboard the P-3. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

Andrew Dzambo from the University of Wisconsin (left) and Steve Durden from NASA’s Jet Propulsion laboratory monitor the Airborne Precipitation Radar which measures cloud droplet size aboard the P-3. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

 

 

 

On the Hunt for the Perfect Science Flight

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by Ellen Gray / SWAKOPMUND, NAMIBIA /

Planning a science flight does not appear to be most exciting part of a NASA airborne mission, even from an exotic location like the Namibian coast where we are now for the ORACLES mission. No planes. No high-altitude views. Just a group of people on computers sitting at long tables in a windowless conference room staring intently at a projector screen.

“I couldn’t disagree more that it’s unglamorous,” said ORACLES principal investigator Jens Redemann of NASA’s Ames Research Center. “I am so excited to be here planning the flights. It’s the promise of a great flight, like visualizing the greatest possible outcome. It’s the perfect flight that we’re on the hunt for every time. You don’t think about anything else while you’re flight planning.”

ORACLES principal investigator Jens Redemann listens intently to the forecast briefing that will be used for flight planning. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

ORACLES principal investigator Jens Redemann listens intently to the forecast briefing that will be used for flight planning. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

The work they’re doing at this 8:00 a.m. meeting literally drives the mission. The forecasting team shows videos of slow-moving model projections of the clouds and aerosols over central and southern Africa and the Atlantic Ocean all the way out to Ascension Island. Like fishermen discussing where to find the best catch, they discuss in excruciating detail where they think the best clouds and aerosol plumes will be.

Like any other prediction of the future, however, these models are not 100 percent correct all the time.

Pablo Said of the National Center for Atmospheric Research discusses details of the forecast with ORACLES principal investigator Jens Redemann during the weather briefing. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

Pablo Said of the National Center for Atmospheric Research discusses details of the forecast with ORACLES principal investigator Jens Redemann during the weather briefing. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

“We know that models aren’t perfect,” said Karla Longo of the Global Modeling and Assimilation Office at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. The Goddard Earth Observing System or GEOS-5 model, for instance, tends to underestimate low-level clouds in this region.

“We have to use it here though so we understand when and why it’s wrong. People don’t always feel good about it, but it’s the only way to improve,” said Longo.

Part of the forecast briefing is devoted to looking back to the previous flight and comparing the forecast for it with what the plane actually found. Over the coming months and years, the ORACLES measurements will be used to update the physics that drive the model.

Meanwhile the science team is riveted because flawed or not, these are the images they need to plan the next flight.

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The cloud forecast made using the UK Met Office’s forecast model on Aug. 31 for the Sept. 2 flight day. It shows clouds at different altitudes in different colors: blue highest, green mid-level, and red lowest. Credit: UK Met Office

On an airborne mission like this there’s not a preset plan of where and when they will fly. Planning is done day by day. It’s a balance between the need for aircraft crew rest and the potential for good clouds and aerosol plumes to measure.

“We’re always concerned about low-level clouds and the amount of smoke in the biomass burning plumes,” said Redemann. “The juggling act is that our science objectives are diverse enough that we look for different plume and cloud characteristics on different days.”

After the forecast briefing to plan the flight for Friday, Sept. 2, Redemann gathers around a whiteboard with a few of the instrument scientists to hash out the nitty-gritty details of the main science section of the flight. The focus of Friday’s flight is radiative balance. They will design the flight plan to maximize the measurements taken by the Solar Spectral Flux Radiometer, which gauges the brightness of the clouds to determine the energy – light – in the atmosphere coming from all directions – directly from the sun, filtered through clouds, and reflected by clouds.

Sebastian Schmidt (center) and his team check the sensor of the Solar Spectral Flux Radiometer that sticks out of the top of the NASA P-3 aircraft. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

Sebastian Schmidt (center) and his team check the sensor of the Solar Spectral Flux Radiometer that sticks out of the top of the NASA P-3 aircraft. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

“The aerosol plume has a different effect on the radiation balance depending on whether the plume is above smooth or broken clouds,” said Redemann. Aerosols can have either a cooling or a warming effect, depending on the brightness of the clouds below. “We’re trying to verify that experimentally in flight.”

The science planning conversation is long and involves a shorthand language, squiggles on the whiteboard and questions like “Do you want to spiral here?”

Once they figure out the science plan, the pilots come in and work with the team to write their flight plans,  including when and where to fly the aircraft from the cloud tops down to a few hundred feet above the ocean surface in a corkscrew-like spiral.

By the end of the day it all comes together, and all that’s left is for the science teams to decide who gets to fly onboard with their instruments.

Mission Operations is set up in a conference room at the Swakomund Hotel in Swakomund, about a 45-minute drive from the Walvis Bay Airport and the NASA research planes. The weather forecast briefing is the highlight of every day. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

Mission Operations is set up in a conference room at the Swakomund Hotel in Swakomund, about a 45-minute drive from the Walvis Bay Airport and the NASA research planes. The weather forecast briefing is the highlight of every day. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

 

 

First Flight: “One of the Best of My Career”

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by Ellen Gray / WALVIS BAY, NAMIBIA /

It’s chilly at 6 a.m. at the Walvis Bay Airport on Wednesday, Aug. 31. Only a couple of employees are here, two hours before the usual work day starts, to scan through security the science team for NASA’s ORACLES mission who are getting ready for the first complete science flight.

The airport is less than a year old with commuter flights from across southern Africa. It’s a tiny, two-story terminal, taking barely a minute to walk from one end to the other. It’s waiting area is still shiny and new, with red seats that will be filled by tourists coming and going in a few hours. But for now it is quiet.

A cloud of fine sand billows up as the P-3 moved down the runway at the Walvis Bay Airport. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

A cloud of fine sand billows up as the P-3 moved down the runway at the Walvis Bay Airport. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

On the runway in front of the hangar, the crew of NASA’s P-3 turbo prop aircraft readies it for flight. Today’s flight plan is called “Routine 1b.” “Routine” because the track — northwest from the airport over the Atlantic then turning due west — will be the regular route the team will fly over the next month to measure the low-lying clouds off the coast and the layer of aerosols above, primarily smoke from seasonal agricultural fires in central Africa.

The “1b” is for first flight, second attempt. Tuesday’s attempt at “Routine 1” ran into a minor technical issue with the aircraft half an hour into the flight that caused it to return early to base.

“There’s a real sense of excitement now that we’re here,” said David Noone of Oregon State University, one of the 24 scientists who was aboard the P-3 with an instrument to measure isotopes of water vapor. The water vapor that travels with the aerosols has a different fingerprint than the water in the clouds, and the measurements tell him how the two are mixing.

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David Noone of Oregon State puts together the monitor for his instrument in the hangar at Walvis Bay Airport. Credit: NASA/ Jane Peterson

“We’ve been planning this experiment for three years,” said Noone. “So many people, so many logistics, so many challenges. To be here to start answering these critical science questions that affect future climate is really awesome.”

Aerosols and how they affect clouds are two of the biggest unknowns in climate science. The only way to learn how they work and affect Earth’s energy balance – how much heat sticks on the planet – is to fly through them both.

The P-3 is loud (best wear your ear protection!) when it fires up. Its propellers kick up a cloud of Namibian desert dust as it moves along the runway. At 8:00 a.m., it’s wheels up and they’re off.

Back in Mission Ops, a conference room at the Swakopmund Hotel a good 45-minute drive from the airport, the non-flying ORACLES scientists monitor the flight for the next eight hours. A web page projected on the big screen shows the plane’s location. A chat program allows the Earth-bound team to communicate via satellite with Rob Wood, the ORACLES flight scientist in charge on the P-3.

P-3 flying above stratocumulus clouds and under wispy cirrus clouds above. Credit: NASA/David Noone

P-3 flying above stratocumulus clouds and under wispy cirrus clouds above. Credit: NASA/David Noone

“This was my first flight on the P-3,” said Wood, ORACLES deputy principal investigator from the University of Washington, Seattle. “I was a little nervous about what I needed to do as flight scientist. It’s a totally new system to me. But the crew worked wonders to make it easy and get me fit into their system.”

After a long seven-and-a-half-hour flight, the whole science team is happy.

“It’s always good to get that first flight under your belt,” said Wood with a big smile on his face. “It’s even better when it’s such an amazing flight. This was up there with the best of my career.”

After Wednesday’s successful science flight, the science team debriefs in the hangar at Walvis Bay Airport. Credit: NASA/David Noone

After Wednesday’s successful science flight, the science team debriefs in the hangar at Walvis Bay Airport. Credit: NASA/David Noone

 

 

 

 

In Namibia: Between Dune and Sky

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by Ellen Gray / WALVIS BAY, NAMIBIA /

This desert was nothing like what I expected. Flying in to Walvis Bay Airport in Namibia, Africa, unbroken beige stretched as far as I could see out the window, lined with the occasional road and dotted by the occasional black rock outcrop, like islands in the sea.

From the ground at first glance, it’s pretty boring in most directions: big sky and flat sand with little to interrupt the horizon. Until you turn and see what look like orange-ish mountains in the distance. They’re not mountains. They’re dunes. As we drive closer, they keep getting bigger. The Crocodile Dundee voice in my head says “Now, that’s a dune.”

Dunes of the Namib Desert near Walvis Bay, Namibia. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

Dunes of the Namib Desert near Walvis Bay, Namibia. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

The dunes are the most spectacular feature of the Namib Desert, one of the oldest deserts in the world, that runs the length of the Namibian coast on the western shore of Africa. But it’s the coast – specifically the clouds above the Atlantic Ocean to the west – that have brought a team of NASA and university scientists and two research aircraft to this remote region for a NASA airborne mission: Observation of Aerosols above Clouds and their Interactions (ORACLES).

Offshore are two things that make the coast of Namibia unique in the entire world: a layer of low-lying cumulus clouds and above that a steady layer of smoke particles – a type of aerosol – that are borne westward on the winds from forest and brush fires over central Africa.

NASA's P-3 aircraft is decked out with scientific instruments to study clouds and aerosols. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

NASA’s P-3 aircraft is decked out with scientific instruments to study clouds and aerosols. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

Aerosols and how they change the behavior of clouds are one of the biggest mysteries in the climate change puzzle. Do aerosols make clouds thicker? Do they reflect more sunlight, or change how much sunlight clouds reflect? Do they absorb sunlight and make the atmosphere warmer? The lessons learned from flying above and through this “perfect natural laboratory,” as principal investigator Jens Redemann put it, will yield insights into cloud-aerosol interactions around the world.

The same conditions that make the low-lying clouds also make the coast really foggy in the morning. The fog is a reliable source of moisture for the plants that cover rocks and boulders sticking out of the sand. Desert-warmed air condenses over cold ocean water to form a marine layer, similar to the ones seen on the California coast.

Swakopmund shrouded in morning fog at 6 a.m. Credit: NASA/Ellen Gray

Swakopmund shrouded in morning fog at 6 a.m. Credit: NASA/Ellen Gray

We are staying in Swakopmund, a tourist town about 45 minutes from the more industrial city of Walvis Bay. This is a former German colony town founded in 1892, and you can see the influence on the architecture. The town is built out rather than up. A constant breeze blows keeping the late August air a nice 70 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit.

As we drive south toward the airport on our first full day here, we’re between two extremes with the Atlantic ocean out the right window and the desert out the left.

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Man walking near the highway on the desert side near Walvis Bay. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

The ocean is blue and huge, and vacation rentals dominate a long section of beach, giving way to a view of offshore drilling platforms in the distance as we near the city of Walvis Bay. Like Swakopmund, the city is spread out, and signs on the highway caution to watch out for children crossing between two residential areas.

Sign for Walvis Bay Airport which is off in the distance toward that hill in the top left. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

Sign for Walvis Bay Airport which is off in the distance toward that hill in the top left. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

At the southern reach of the city new construction is going up as we turn inland toward the desert and the airport.  The dunes in the distance grow until we pass Dune 7, the tallest in the area at over 1200 feet. Out here, under the sun, the temperature will be in the 90s F by midday.

Soon after we arrive at Walvis Bay Airport, a tiny bump on the horizon that will be the ORACLES base of operations for the next month. A spill of scientists, freshly badged for airport access, disembark out of the shuttle van, ready to go.

Dune 7 from a distance. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

Dune 7 from a distance. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

 

 

Our Big Finish: Africa, Australia, Greenland

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by Steve Cole / WASHINGTON, DC /

For the next month Earth Expeditions lives up to its name as we wrap up our reporting on NASA scientists in the field by taking you to three far-flung locations around the world. Our final trio of 2016 expeditions is exploring the edges of the Greenland ice sheet, potential climate changes in clouds off the Atlantic coast of Africa, and the condition of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

NASA photographer Jane Peterson on the tarmac in Walvis Bay, Namibia.

NASA photographer Jane Peterson on the tarmac in Walvis Bay, Namibia.

Our reporting team has just arrived in Walvis Bay, Namibia, for the start of the ORACLES airborne campaign looking into the complex interactions of tiny aerosol particles and clouds and their impact on climate. Two NASA aircraft are now at Walvis Bay for the mission, which will continue through the end of September. Our team begins blogging right here tomorrow!

Where there’s smoke there’s fire, but what if there are also cloud condensation nuclei? Clouds help to keep the planet cool by reflecting sunlight back into space. Aerosols such as smoke particles contribute by mixing with water vapor, resulting in “cloud seeds” that, in addition to forming raindrops, create brighter and more reflective clouds. On the flipside, smoke particles can absorb sunlight and contribute to atmospheric warming.

ORACLES mapThe ORACLES (Observations of Aerosols above Clouds and Their Interactions) campaign takes to the skies of the southern Atlantic to investigate this cloud-aerosol phenomena. “Aerosols work as a sort of a sun-umbrella,” said ORACLES principal investigator Jens Redemann. “Whether they’re absorbing or not, they have implications for clouds and cloud formations.”

In mid-September another NASA reporting team will be traveling with the Coral Reef Airborne Laboratory (CORAL) mission to the land down under to probe portions of the Great Barrier Reef.  CORAL is looking at the interplay of factors that influence these complex underwater ecosystems.

CORAL map

To date coral reefs have primarily been studied with scuba gear and a tape measure as the dominant tools of the trade. But CORAL will investigate reefs en masse with the use of an airborne instrument to record the spectra of light reflected upward from the ocean. Those measurements allow researchers to pick out the unique spectral signatures of living corals, sand and algae as well as create ecosystem-scale models of reef conditions.

The Earth Expeditions team will be reporting from Cairns, North Queensland – the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef – and Heron and Lizard Islands. CORAL will sample six sections across the length of the reef, from the Capricorn-Bunker Group in the south to the Torres Strait in the north.

“CORAL is a unique opportunity to obtain a large uniform data set across several reef systems. This will give us a whole new perspective on coral reefs,” said Eric Hochberg, CORAL principal investigator. Future field work of the three-year field campaign will inspect coral reefs in Hawaii and the Micronesian islands of Palau and the Mariana Islands.

OMG map

On the opposite side of the globe from Australia, the Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) campaign will be dropping some 250 probes from a NASA aircraft into the waters on Greenland’s continental shelf and in its fjords. The probes measure ocean temperature and salinity as they sink thousands of feet into the water, transmitting the data to the aircraft above. Combined with OMG’s new maps of the seafloor along the coast, the probe data will show where warm, subsurface waters can come in contact with the undersides of glaciers and melt them from below.

The rate of underwater melting in Greenland has been one of the greatest uncertainties in predicting future sea level rise, according to Josh Willis, OMG’s principal investigator. With the intensive measurements that OMG will gather in its five-year span, “We may not solve the problem of predicting sea level rise, but we hope to make a dent,” he said.

To reach all of Greenland’s coastline — which is eight times the length of the U.S. East and West coasts combined — the OMG team will use four different bases in Greenland, Iceland and Norway between mid-September and early October. Our Earth Expeditions reporting team will document OMG’s work as winter approaches in the Far North.

 

Mapping Methane in a Bubbling Arctic Lake

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by Kate Ramsayer / FAIRBANKS, ALASKA /

At first glance, it looks like a typical, picture-perfect lake. But scan the reeds along the shore of this pool on the outskirts of Fairbanks, or glance at the spruce trees lining the banks, and you notice something different is going on.

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Methane bubbles pop on the surface of a lake near Fairbanks, Alaska. Thawing permafrost in the lakebed soils releases old carbon, which microbes eat up and turn into methane. Credit: NASA/Kate Ramsayer

Bubbles. There are bubbles popping up among the reeds, like bubbles from a fish tank aerator. A couple clusters, steady streams of small half-circles, vent near the shore. Then another group appears in deeper water.

And the trees. Some of them are not growing in the directions trees normally do. They stick out drunkenly over the lake, then take a turn upwards at the top.

A lake near Fairbanks shows signs of thawing permafrost below the surface – including "drunken trees" that tip over as the soil shifts around its roots. Credit: NASA/Kate Ramsayer

A lake near Fairbanks shows signs of thawing permafrost below the surface – including “drunken trees” that tip over as the soil shifts around its roots. Credit: NASA/Kate Ramsayer

The explanation for both of these features is in the soil. Permafrost—soil that remains frozen year-round—lies underneath the moss, needles and topsoil of the site. As that permafrost thaws, the ground above it can sink, knocking trees askew and forming pools of water called thermokarst lakes.

“The carbon locked in permafrost for thousands of years is released to the lake bottom,” said Prajna Lindgren, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Geophysical Institute.

These lake beds, she explained, provide a perfect environment for microbes to eat up the carbon released from the thawing permafrost. This produces methane—a potent greenhouse gas that is released in bubble seeps. As part of the NASA-funded Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment, or ABoVE, Lindgren and her colleagues are studying these seeps and mapping how thawing permafrost is affecting the changing lake edges.

Methane bubbles in a lake.

A methane seep releases bubbles in the grasses close to the shore of a lake near Fairbanks, the site of thawing permafrost. Credit: NASA/Kate Ramsayer

“We’re trying to establish the amount of methane that’s released from these lakes,” she said.

To do that, the scientists are combining old aerial photos with satellite images and new surveys of lakes across Alaska. They’re looking at how the shapes and sizes of lakes are changing over time, which is an indication of where permafrost thaw is altering the landscape. Then, they examine how changing landscapes are associated with the methane seeps. In the fall, as soon as the lakes freeze over, the bubble-measuring fieldwork begins.

“If there’s no snow on the lake and its just black ice, when you walk out you see distinct bubbles in the lake ice,” Lindgren said. The methane bubbles get trapped in the ice, fusing together in pancake shapes, that the researchers can plot and measure.

“We see a lot of these seeps clustered where the lakes are changing,” she said. The next steps will be to estimate methane release based on the extent of lake changes. And for lakes beyond the researchers’ reach, such as those in remote areas of Alaska and northwestern Canada, the goal is to estimate methane release based on how the lakes are changing, as seen in satellite images.

A new study, funded in part by ABoVE, compared old aerial photos from the 1950s with recent satellite images to measure changes in lake outlines, for example. Using this information, methane measurements, radiocarbon dating and other techniques, the scientists calculated how much old carbon, stored for thousands of years in the permafrost, has been released over the past 60 years.

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