Summer School: NASA Airborne Science 101

Inside the cramped quarters of the NASA Sherpa with the racks of scientific instruments. Credit: Megan Schill, Megan Schill photography

by Madison Lichak / SKIES OVER CALIFORNIA /

Thirty-two undergraduates from across the country had the experience of a lifetime flying on the NASA C-23 Sherpa and UC-12B King Air laboratories as part of the NASA Student Airborne Research Program (SARP) summer internship.  One student, Madison Lichak, a biology major from Barnard College in New York, shares her flight experiences.

It is stifling hot inside the aircraft, and I fidget nervously in my seat. A towering metal rack of scientific instruments stands before me, blocking my view toward the front of the plane, close enough that my knees are almost pressed against it. Motion sickness bags, tucked inside their cheerful blue paper wrappers, lie littered across an unused shelf. I try to breathe normally. I have taken many flights in my life, but the flight today is going to be unlike anything I have ever experienced.

The plane I am on, NASA’s C-23 Sherpa, is not your normal commercial aircraft. An old army cargo plane outfitted to carry scientific instruments, the Sherpa reminds me of a bumblebee; with its tiny wings, you have to marvel at the fact that it can even stay up in the air. Loveably ugly and swamp green, the Sherpa is our laboratory for the next two and a half hours. As part of the Student Airborne Research Program (SARP), I, along with 31 other students from across the country, have the unique opportunity to work with NASA scientists to examine Earth from the air.

The 2017 NASA Student Airborne Research Program (SARP) participants, faculty, mentors and pilots pose in front of the NASA C-23 Sherpa at NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center in Palmale, California. Credit: Megan Schill, Megan Schill Photography

The previous day, while other students flew in the Sherpa over Los Angeles, I donned a flight suit and flew aboard NASA Langley’s UC-12B with the Geostationary Trace Gas and Aerosol Sensor Optimization (GeoTASO) instrument. It was a thoroughly pleasant, if somewhat cramped, flight at 20,000 feet.  Throughout the flight we monitored the instrument as it made measurements of the atmospheric gases below us.

Madison Lichak, an undergraduate student at Barnard College in New York,  poses by the NASA Langley UC-12B. Credit: Megan Schill, Megan Schill Photography

However, on the Sherpa we will be taking physical samples of the air, so we need to fly right through the air we want to collect. This means we will be flying at an average height of 1,000 feet above the ground. As the last flight of the day, the hot air will have had plenty of time to become uneven, making for a very turbulent ride. The previous day’s final flight had been so bumpy that several students became sick, and I stare at the blue motion sickness bags in front of me with a mixture of trepidation and relief.

Luckily, there isn’t much time for me to be nervous, as the Sherpa is only on the ground for a few minutes between flights. It’s almost 100 degrees Fahrenheit outside on the runway at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Palmdale, California, and the longer the non-airconditioned plane sits on the ground, the hotter it gets inside and the greater the chance that the instruments will overheat. The turnover between flights has to be quick, so I scurry toward my seat where I begin to sweat nervously as other students and scientists remove used air collection canisters and tubes, affectionately known as “snakes” (due to the way the metal tubing snakes through them), and load new ones onto the plane.

Students Mario Autore and Sean Leister load air canisters onto the NASA Sherpa aircraft in between flights. Credit: Megan Schill, Megan Schill photography

Once the transition is complete, the pilots start the engines, and because the Sherpa isn’t insulated, the noise is deafening. I quickly put my noise-cancelling headset on, just in time to hear the pilots ask if we’re ready for takeoff. I only have time for one more forlorn look at the blue motion sickness bags before we’re up in the air and I begin to relax. The air isn’t as hot and stagnant up here, and the turbulence isn’t that bad. The whole air sampling group gets up to begin taking air samples, and next to me the air quality monitoring research group turns on their instrument to begin collecting data.

Student Natasha Dacic takes an air sample in-flight aboard the NASA Sherpa. Credit: Megan Schill, Megan Schill Photography

I sit back and watch as we fly over the massive redwoods of Sequoia National Park, a wildfire that billows smoke thousands of feet into the air, and oil fields so expansive they seem never-ending. As we spin in endless loops around the landscape, I marvel at all of the ways that scientific research seems to defy boundaries.

Before I know it we are touching down at Armstrong. As the Sherpa makes its way toward the hangar, I revel in the fact that we just did science on an airplane, and I am so grateful to the scientists, pilots and staff that made this wonderful opportunity possible. We gather up our things and shut down the instruments, opening the Sherpa’s rear door to the jubilant cries of our fellow scientists and students waiting on the ground, and see that they are holding up their hands above their heads to create a human tunnel. Running underneath their arms, I smile and yell, too, laughing and sharing in their joy.

Lichak emerges from a human tunnel formed by SARP participants at the NASA Sherpa after the final research flight on June 27, 2017. Credit: Megan Schill, Megan Schill Photography

Student Airborne Science Alumni Fly High

by Emily Schaller / PALMDALE, CALIFORNIA /

The Student Airborne Research Program (SARP) is now in its eighth summer. Many SARP alumni have gone on to get advanced degrees, others now work at NASA centers, national labs and universities, and some even participate on NASA Airborne Science Program research campaigns.

Two SARP alumni, Benjamin Nault (2010) and Tamara Sparks (2012), were instrument scientists on board the DC-8 during the Korea U.S.-Air Quality mission in May. Ben is a postdoc at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He operated an instrument that measured the chemical composition of small particles in the atmosphere. Tamara is a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, who operated an instrument that measures nitrogen dioxide, a molecule that is important for understanding pollution production rates and lifetimes. Here they describe how the SARP internship influenced their careers and their work on the KORUS-AQ mission.

When you were a little kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Ben: At first, I did not even think about being a scientist and my inclinations were more in the arts—chef, jazz musician, art teacher. Though I still cook as a source of relaxation every night, it was towards the end of 8th grade, after experiencing middle school science classes, that I started wanting to be a scientist. In particular, I was drawn to environmental science, especially due to all the activities I did outside, such as camping, hiking and fishing.

Ben_Nault_DC8_KORUSBen Nault onboard the NASA DC-8 during the Korea U.S.-Air Quality mission.

Tamara: There were a variety of things I wanted to be when I grew up, but the ones that come to mind are an astronaut or a marine biologist.

Describe your educational background before SARP.

Ben: I was completing my bachelor of science in chemistry at Purdue University. I decided to go to Purdue in order to earn a degree in the one of the core sciences prior to going to graduate school for my Ph.D. Originally, I wanted to do research in oceanography; however, Purdue provided undergraduate research opportunities with two groups looking at atmospheric chemistry problems. These opportunities allowed me to participate in research in Chile and a large science mission in northern Michigan. These opportunities made me extremely excited about atmospheric chemistry prior to applying to SARP.

Tamara: Before SARP, I was attending Westmont College, where I got a B.S. in chemistry. I was looking for a way to apply my background in chemistry to studying the environment. I didn’t know that atmospheric chemistry was a field until I heard about SARP, and it immediately struck me as a perfect fit for my interests.
Tamara_Sparks v2Tamara Sparks at work over Korea on NASA’s DC-8 flying laboratory.

What was an exciting part of the KORUS-AQ mission for you?

Ben: One aspect I love about my research is the opportunity to travel, and this mission took me to South Korea (awesome sauce!). Also, South Korea provides an excellent opportunity to investigate the impacts of local emissions on regional chemistry (and vice versa) as well as the impacts of these emissions on biogenic chemistry due to its geography.

Tamara: I was excited to experience an international airborne science mission. It’s exciting that while doing science, I get to travel and experience new places.

What are your goals for the future?

Ben: I plan on becoming a research professor at a university and continuing my investigation of atmospheric chemistry, including aspects that would need airborne research.

Tamara: Graduate with a Ph.D.! I’m not certain yet what I will do after, although I plan to continue doing work related to the atmosphere. 

What would you tell an undergraduate who was thinking about applying for SARP?

Ben: It is an awesome opportunity. The program gives you an opportunity to see how airborne research is done and to see how the sciences are used to investigate tangible, real-world problems. Also, flying on a research airplane 1000 feet above ground level is something you will never forget. Try to do as many research and/or internship opportunities as possible prior to graduating to help you decide what you want to do after you graduate. Finally, enjoy this opportunity. It’s awesome!!!!!

Tamara: Definitely apply! SARP was a great and unique experience. I learned so much and got to see firsthand how airborne science is done. The connections I made and knowledge I gained have been incredibly valuable.

Students Experience Airborne Science over California

by Mariah Heck, Julia Lafond and Ariana Tribby / PALMDALE, CALIF. /

Thirty-two undergraduates from across the country had the experience of a lifetime last week flying on the NASA DC-8 laboratory as part of the NASA Student Airborne Research Program (SARP). This hands-on internship gives students the opportunity to not only help scientists collect data but also creatively design their own research projects based on that data to address environmental issues that have global impact.  

On June 17 and 18, the students flew on the DC-8, which had recently returned from research flights in the Republic of Korea as part of NASA’s Korea U.S.-Air Quality mission. SARP participants observed and participated in flight planning and scientific data collection. Here, three of those students—Mariah Heck, Julia Lafond and Ariana Tribby—share their flight experiences. Julia is a geology major and biology minor from North Carolina State University. Mariah studies geophysics and geology at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma. Ariana is a chemistry major at Pomona College in Claremont, California.

Students
Mariah Heck, Julia Lafond and Ariana Tribby. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

The NASA DC-8 is not your typical commercial aircraft. The windows are filled with many sensors and air sampling devices that feed into instruments inside the plane. Usually, SARP flights have just a few instruments on board, but this time there were more than 20 because of the recent Korea U.S.-Air Quality mission (KORUS-AQ).

Aircraft exterior
The DC-8 is highly modified to accommodate various air intake probes for the Student Airborne Research Program (SARP) mission. Credit: NASA/Carla Thomas

We wandered around the plane during flight to learn about not only the equipment on board but also how scientists work together on missions. Seeing the data-gathering process in action was incredible. While we were flying, the scientists announced their findings over headsets. They would often ask each other about the levels of specific compounds they were measuring, because results from each instrument comprised a piece of the entire puzzle of chemical reactions taking place in the atmosphere. It demonstrated that no scientific research is truly isolated—collaboration is key.

Student Airborne Research Program (SARP) students enjoyed interacting with recently returned researchers from the Korea U.S.-Air Quality mission. Julia learns about one of the spectrometers used to analyze air pollution. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson
SARP students enjoyed interacting with recently returned researchers from the Korea U.S.-Air Quality mission. Julia learns about one of the spectrometers used to analyze air pollution. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

One of the instruments, the Airborne Tropospheric Hydrogen Oxides Sensor (ATHOS), required adjustments below deck to allow the flow of several gases into the sensor above. The scientist operating this instrument, Alexandra Brosius, gladly took students into the cargo area to demonstrate how to adjust gas flow inlets. It was extremely exciting to get into the pit, all while fighting to keep our balance because of all of the bumps and movement caused by the DC-8 flying through turbulent winds.

Aircraft interior
Ariana emerges from the aircraft cargo pit area. Credit: Claire Buysse

The whole air sampling team was the busiest student group. They took samples of the outside air by filling vacuum cylinders every five minutes throughout the duration of the flight. They took samples more frequently at specific locations, such as when the aircraft flew over oil drilling fields or during missed approaches. Careful sampling during these events is essential for examining harmful emissions at their source.

Aircraft interior
SARP participant Dakota Crane operates the Whole Air Sampler in flight aboard the DC-8. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

Going into the flights, we were both nervous and excited, as we were thoroughly warned that flying would consist of many spirals and missed approaches at area airports in order to collect data closer to the ground. A missed approach means approaching the runway like you are going to land, but then pulling back up. These maneuvers would also involve a lot of turbulence, and the high temperatures meant the plane would be uncomfortably warm—all factors that contribute to airsickness.

Flight tracks
The flight tracks over southern and central California for two SARP research flights. Credit: NASA

As planned, we made several missed approaches, and because most of the flight took place in the boundary layer (approximately 1000 feet above ground), it was a bumpy flight overall. The maneuvers and low flying made seven people queasy.

During parts of the flight, we could see smoke through the window. The Sherpa brush fire outside Santa Barbara was in full swing that weekend, and we could see how it directly influenced the chemistry of the atmosphere.

A time-lapse video of the NASA DC-8 sampling haze from a wildfire near Santa Barbara, CA on June 18, 2016 during a SARP flight.

Despite the motion sickness, heat and tight space, this was an experience of a lifetime and we were very honored and fortunate to work with such incredible, accomplished scientists, engineers and pilots!