By George Hale, IceBridge Science Outreach Coordinator, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
An IceBridge field campaign is the culmination of months of planning and preparation. At January’s science team meeting, scientists focused the campaign’s goals and provided mission planners the details needed to finalize flight plans. With these final details ironed out the next step was to start preparing the tools of the trade, IceBridge’s aircraft and instruments. For the past several days, instrument teams and aircraft technicians at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Va., have been getting the P-3B ready for the 2013 Arctic campaign, which is scheduled to have its first science flight on Mar. 20.
Operation IceBridge is but one of several missions to use NASA’s P-3B airborne laboratory. After each mission, this aircraft returns to its home base at Wallops where it undergoes repairs and routine scheduled maintenance needed to keep it flying at peak efficiency and where science instruments are swapped out. This rotation of airborne science missions keeps the Wallops aircraft team busy, preparing between three and five missions per year. “Sometimes it’s more and sometimes it’s less,” said P-3B flight engineer Brian Yates. “We’re working on some relatively large projects, so we have five this year.”
After the aircraft’s maintenance is complete and the previous mission’s equipment has been removed, the IceBridge team starts installing the mission’s suite of science instruments. This process can be generally divided into a few portions: installing the instrument and the equipment needed to control it and collect data, testing the individual instruments and checking to make sure the aircraft and instrument suite work together as they should.
The first step is installing the components that gather the data, such as cameras, radar arrays and laser transceivers. The Airborne Topographic Mapper (ATM) laser and Digital Mapping System (DMS) cameras are installed in bays on the underside of the aircraft. Each of these instruments looks down through windows in the plane’s belly. The Multichannel Coherent Radar Depth Sounder (MCoRDS) antenna is attached to the underside of the aircraft. Previously this has included antennas under the wings, but IceBridge is flying with a trimmed down MCoRDS instrument with an array beneath the P-3B’s fuselage.Additional radar instruments like the accumulation and snow radars and Ku-band radar altimeter are also installed at this time.
While this hardware was being installed on the plane, other members of the instrument team put together all of the hardware needed to operate the instruments in metal racks that are then securely bolted to the floor of the plane. Making sure everything is securely fastened is crucial because of the often turbulent nature of low-altitude polar survey flights.
Once everything is in place and secured the next step is to make sure the instruments work properly. This means rounds of testing both on the ground and in the air. Ground testing involves checking instrument connections and alignment. “We’ll check on the camera to make sure it’s seeing through the window ok and not catching the edge,” said DMS field engineer Dennis Gearhart.
Everything being used in this IceBridge campaign has flown before, but it’s important to make sure the instruments are working properly.”We want to make sure things work as well as they did when they were put into storage,” said ATM program manager James Yungel. To do this, the ATM team will bounce the laser off a ground target 500 feet away.
The real test of all this work comes with the mission’s check flights on Mar. 13 and 14. The first flight, known as an engineering check flight is carried out with flight crew only and is to ensure that everything is properly installed and secured. Scientists and instrument operators participate in the second flight, where instruments are powered on and tested. “The check flights are a final arbiter,” said Yungel.
This year’s IceBridge Arctic campaign will run from Mar. 18 through May 3. The P-3B will operate out of airfields in Thule and Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, and Fairbanks, Alaska.