Mowing the Lawn at Pine Island Glacier


From: Jill Hummels, Public Information Officer, University of Kansas School of Engineering


PUNTA ARENAS, Chile, Oct. 20 — Today’s high-altitude flight took NASA’s Operation Ice Bridge researchers over Antarctica’s Pine Island region (75° 25’ S and 98° 25’ W and surrounding area).


“We’re really pumped. We’re getting some really good data,” says Chris Allen from the University of Kansas about midway through the 11-hour flight. The electrical engineering professor and four graduate students are operating three different radars developed at the university through the National Science Foundation Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets.



Chris Allen at the controls of the MCoRDS radar, over Antarctica. (Jill Hummels/University of Kansas)


“A while back, we were over the ice shelf, and it was very distinct.” Now, as the plane progresses over the land formation, the vibrant multicolored display offers less clear information. But the raw data is still being captured. “That’s where the signal processing comes in,” Allen says.


The display offers a cactus-like spectrum of color, with spikes protruding from separate layers of color. The uninitiated eye can clearly see a “surface” in the image. That would be the top of the ice layer, Allen explains. The more trained eye knows that where the yellow, aqua and blue colors intermingle is where the real action lies. More sophisticated methods will be needed to coax meaning from the raw data.


Already the Kansas team is eliciting “oohs” and “ahhs” from other science team members through data they’ve collected with the MCoRDS radar in the mission’s two previous flights.  In a recent evening briefing at the hotel in Punta Arenas, an image being displayed for all to see appeared to show that in one inland area of Antarctica the ice sheet is several kilometers thick and is nestled in a channel of bedrock that appears to be well below sea level.


Five hours after today’s flight started, the plane has gone through several passes over the glacier and still has many more to go. The proscribed flight path — called “mowing the lawn” — includes 11 parallel lines and a couple perpendicular ones. Each parallel path is about five miles apart. However, the flight crew skips the adjacent path in order to comfortably make the wide turn to the next run. A couple “teardrop turns,” wider turns that loop back nearly 360 degrees to a narrower path, have been thrown in for good measure to ensure the science and engineering teams are on the exact positions they need.  It also helps break the monotony of flying over endless tracks of white.


Even after the flight crew has maneuvered the DC-8 through its perpendicular labyrinth and is making the long stretch home across the Antarctic Ocean, the Kansas team will still be hard at work crunching numbers and distilling hard truths from the icebergs of raw data.  With significant computing power aboard the plane, the team has made it a goal to try to deliver detailed information about ice sheet thickness and more by the time the plane lands in Punta Arenas.



The DC-8’s flight plan (dark lines) and actual flight paths (red lines) mid-way through the “mowing” of Pine Island Glacier. (Pine Island Bay is on the left side of this image.)


The Return of a Chilean Native


From: Jill Hummels, Public Information Officer, University of Kansas School of Engineering

The far tip of Chile is no stranger to one member of the Operation Ice Bridge team.  It’s almost home.

Victor Jara Olivares – an electrical engineering doctoral student, graduate research assistant and native of Concepción, Chile – is among the University of Kansas team members who’ll be in Punta Arenas for the NASAs mission.


Jara has been involved in making improvements to the MCoRDS radar and supporting additional radars KU is supplying for the mission. He’s also been integral to the development of another radar to be used by in Antarctica later this season for a National Science Foundation Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets (CReSIS) mission.


As an officer in the Chilean Navy, Jara was involved with the Center for Scientific Studies of the South of Chile and has been to Punta Arenas before.  In 2002, while managing a naval air base, Jara helped NASA secure the use of a P3 aircraft.


That exchange put him in touch with Prasad Gogineni, distinguished professor at KU and director of CReSIS, and fostered his interest in remote sensing and polar studies. Freshly armed with master’s degrees in both aerospace engineering and electrical engineering, he was encouraged to pursue a doctorate and was offered a GRA position at KU. It didn’t hurt that his fiancée (now his wife) also was from Kansas.


Jara excitedly shares travel tips and insight to his native culture with anyone who’ll listen.  He offers three “musts” for any leisure traveler to Chile:


• Drink a pisco sour

• Eat a local empanada

• Visit Laguna San Rafael


During Ice Bridge, Jara plans to focus on radar work and forego any family visits. Chile, he points out, is as long as the United States is wide, and the 1,600 hundred-mile drive from Punta Arenas to visit his parents would take days.


Communicating 'Wondrous' Research Efforts


From: Jill Hummels, Public Information Officer, University of Kansas School of Engineering

In August, my boss sent me an email with the subject line of “FYI.” I know what he really meant to type was “Great Opportunity.” In the email he asked if I would be willing to travel to the southern tip of Chile to report on the activities of a University of Kansas research team.

My response: “I carry my passport with me at all times … Yes.”

As a public information officer for the KU School of Engineering, I work with people who do truly wondrous things that few others outside the school or the field know much about. My job is to ensure more people know the wondrous, seemingly magical, research efforts of our faculty.

This time I’m following the adventures of KU researchers who’ve developed radars and computer models that can tell the world a lot about what’s happening to our polar ice. Not a bad gig. The KU team, housed at the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets and led by Professor Chris Allen, was selected by NASA to provide much of the instrumentation for Operation Ice Bridge. Also, not a bad gig.

I’ve traveled to most states and visited many Canadian provinces and a few Mexican states, but this is my first trip outside North America. I’m pretty excited about the opportunity to travel to Punta Arenas, so much so that a 29-hour flight itinerary seems like a pretty cool endurance test. I guess it’s good that I like to fly. That finely honed skill will come in handy if I’m able to sit in on a flight over Antarctica in NASA’s DC-8.

My family is pretty pumped about my Chile excursion, too, although we haven’t broken the news to the dog, yet. We think she might be jealous.


On Headset: Communication is Key


From: Jill Hummels, Public Information Officer, University of Kansas School of Engineering


PUNTA ARENAS, Chile, Oct. 21 — Every flight in NASA’s Operation Ice Bridge mission begins and ends with a briefing. Today’s pilot Dick Ewers calls the disparate group to order and starts the morning with a roll call of the flight manifest. Every person on the flight must be accounted for with either a self-announced “Here!” or another passenger providing an accounting of their whereabouts as “on the plane.” Today’s total: 31.


The project scientist Seelye Martin then gives an overview of the day’s science objective, which instruments will be onboard that day, and which will play the lead role.


The flight crew provides a brief review of issues that need monitoring by all passengers and crew. At the top of the list: making sure lavatory faucets aren’t left running and ensuring everyone knows that “equipment and hot food have priority in the aisles.” The navigator announces some of the parameters for the day’s flight, such as altitude and duration.  Other crew members reiterate safety awareness and the day’s schedule. “On the plane by 9. Doors close at 9:30. In the air by 10.”


Before taking off, all people on board must be on communication headsets. “Mission” (the flight crew) performs an audible check of all research instrument teams on board, and a representative from each team provides a status update.


Once airborne, researchers can choose to take off the headsets, but they are the best tool for communicating changing needs, problems, wishes, hopes and dreams with flight crew and the mission’s project science. Discussions, though not constant, are frequent.


About an hour into the flight, Mission announces impending pitch and roll maneuvers needed to calibrate some of the instruments.


Throughout the flight, everyone is free to move about the cabin, mingle, take pictures and talk shop.


Several instrument stations are outfitted with touch-screen monitors that provide real-time data, including satellite weather images, “webcams” of what’s directly in front of the plane and below it (below), and a Google Earth application that maps the current location of the DC-8.



Near the end of today’s roundtrip flight, the headsets are back on and everyone is back in their seats. Mission calls out each research team for a quick review of the day’s highlights, and any special landing procedures needed for data acquisition or instrument calibration.


On the ground, researchers quickly gather their personal belongings and any necessary portable equipment and haul it to the cramped mission offices at the airport. Within a half hour of the plane’s doors swinging open, all flight crew and researchers gather for a post-flight briefing on the day’s mission.


The day ends with a quick review of the next flight mission and schedule: “Briefing at 7. Power on at 7:30. Doors open by 8. Doors close by 8:30. In the air by 9.”