Author Archives: Jessica Culler

NASA817 Heavy

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This post was provided by Tristan Hall, a student from Florida State University on the Studies of Emissions and Atmospheric Composition, Clouds and Climate Coupling by Regional Surveys (SEAC4RS) airborne science mission.

First off, sorry for not writing. I will make no excuses. Secondly, I got to fly in the DC-8! On a convection flight! The goal of the flight was to investigate marine convection in various stages: growth, mature, and dissipative. The mature is the best!

Down at the far end of the base is the entrance to the hanger that houses all the science equipment. It was a bright crisp morning (crisp… HA! it was probably 80 F at 5 AM!), and I’m grateful to Nick for waking up slightly earlier than usual so he could drop me off. There was a safety briefing before we got on the plane for us newbies. It’s basically like the one you see on a commercial flight. However, there is a little addition in case of a gas leak on the plane. In case of this, there is a little hood that pops on over your head and constricts around your neck to protect you. After the video, there was the flight brief that basically just went over the science objective. Interesting note that they like to put in there: the plane had 126,000+ pounds of fuel!

Post pre-flight brief I got to wander around for a few. This was fantastic! I got to walk up to the DC-8 and ER-2. RIGHT UP TO THEM! I could’ve touched the turbines if I wanted! There was a beautiful sunrise, and everything. Thank you nature for being you. 

(Photo credit to Tristan Hall)

(Photo credit to Tristan Hall)

I was advised by Hal Maring to ride in the “jump seat”. Well… let me tell you… WOW. This seat is located in the cockpit.

(Photo credit to Tristan Hall)

(Photo credit to Tristan Hall)

It sits a little higher than the captain’s seat, and you can see everything! I got to see takeoff and landing! One of the greatest experiences of my life. Seeing the three pilots (pilots? Two pilots and an flight engineer who controlled the power board) work together on takeoff; the giant checklists they had to go through; and the coordination with ATC was just impressive. I got to listen in on the headset to the pilots talk to each other and ATC. A funny joke of the morning was when a NASA jet took off with its afterburners, someone on the radio said that they “better see the DC-8 do that”. I wish! Whenever you think your plane is taking too long to depart the gate, I’d like you to think and understand the complexity of a plane. The amount of safety checks is phenomenal. The flight engineer gave me my brief. He pointed out my oxygen mask, and the pilot quickly turned around to show which one was his, and to not take it. The oxygen masks were the type you see the fighter pilots wearing – not the plastic bag that “may not inflate”. In case we were to ditch, I had to wait for someone from mission control to get me, or if it was quite bad, the pilots were to yell at me to get out, and they “wouldn’t be nice about it”. Understandable.

I tried as best I could to catch on to the lingo amongst the pilots and ATC, and boy was it interesting! NASA817 Heavy. That was the phrase I listened for. On the ATC channel multiple planes are talking so it can get confusing pretty quickly, but all I listened for was NASA817 Heavy. The “heavy” stands for (and I just Googled this, so naturally it’s true) when a plane is heavier than 300,000 pounds. How about that! On our ascent to altitude, a plane was in the region. “NASA817 Heavy, you’ve got traffic on your 11 o’clock”. Okay so, you know scenes in shows when planes crash in mid-air? I totally see that as plausible. After ATC said this, all three crew members stopped what they were doing and stared out the window. I did this, as well. I mean, I was basically flying the plane – these guys were depending on me. We kept looking… and looking… and looking until this plane comes zooming by. It looked like it was a mile away. Travelling at 300 mph, it doesn’t take long to get next to each other. As soon as the plane was in sight, it was out of sight. Thank an air traffic controller.

The dance that the flight crew went through was impressive. The pilot was basically not to be bothered, ever, I gathered. He flew. If the co-pilot was doing something (turning a knob, or piloty things), and the pilot needed to do something that was in the way, the co-pilot immediately removed his hands and stopped what he was doing so the pilot could finish his task. This happened when the pilot just wanted to increase the thrust. Just something as simple as that, and all hands were out of the way. Amazing stuff.

The flight itself was great, too. We were following storms, what else is better?! For ease of communication, the storms were named. One of the commanders on mission control on the plane was Hawaiian. He named one of the main storms we studied Leilani (heavenly lei; beautiful, eh?).

Leilani (Image credit to Tristan Hall)

Leilani (Image credit to Tristan Hall)

This beauty was fun. We got into the updraft of the storm which maxed out around 10 m/s (22 mph; that’s pretty good) followed by a 7 m/s (16 mph) downdraft. I got to feel weightless for a good second or two. WOO! Let’s just say, I’ll never be troubled by turbulence on a commercial flight, anymore. Mid-flight we got to spiral down to the boundary layer (near surface layer). As we spiraled down… and down… and down… the oil rigs kept on getting bigger… and bigger… and bigger. Then we straightened out and flew at 350 ft. Yea… 350 FEET! From the OCEAN SURFACE! AT 300 mph! The oil rigs were zooming by.

Flying near the surface (Photo credit to Tristan Hall)

Flying near the surface (Photo credit to Tristan Hall)

We finished a successful mission, and returned to Ellington. Landing was just as amazing as takeoff in the jump seat. The pilots kept asking me for hints on landing, and I was all like “guys… it’s your turn, you’ve got this”. The best I can compare that too is a simulator on your computer or something. Once the runway is in view it just keeps getting bigger and bigger, until the bump of landing. The end to a wonderful day.

Overall, this was just an amazing experience. It was truly breathtaking and inspiring. The NASA Airborne Science program is unique. I hope to be a part of it for the years to come. There is so much imagination, and pure brilliance that goes into the science equipment onboard the plane. In case you are wondering, the plane is outfitted such that basically every-other window is removed and replaced with an instrument. So there are around 30 instruments sticking their little noses outside the plane. The engineers need to be very creative to design their apparatus so that it conforms to the plane. Speaking of the plane, there were first class seats, and Bose noise-cancelling headphones! Oh yea, top notch. These are essential as the plane is LOUD without the headset, and everybody needs to talk on the mission channel. The first class seats are must as who the heck wants to sit in a tiny seat for 8 hours, and not be able to move?!

I will forever remember this experience.

A Direct Redirect

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This post was provided by Tristan Hall, a student from Florida State University on the Studies of Emissions and Atmospheric Composition, Clouds and Climate Coupling by Regional Surveys (SEAC4RS) airborne science mission.

Well I left you hanging last time with me in pure overload and shock – nothing’s changed. This is still amazing, but now I’m overloaded because of the requirements of the job! I wake up early every morning and glean all I can from every model that I have access to. I then use my best judgment and years and years (3, cough) of collegiate knowledge to work on how the weather is going to change and affect our science objectives. For instance, there are these things in the atmosphere called shortwaves. [Begin digression] They are called shortwaves because they are smaller than the larger scale waves. Imagine an ocean wave rising toward the beach with a surfer on it. The surfer’s board makes waves within the big ocean wave. Those are short relative to the big ocean wave – shortwaves. They can kick cyclones (a spinning system – not necessarily a tropical cyclone) into action, or they can break off fragments of an upper-level disturbance away from the flow and make it remain in place for an elongated time dropping days of rain on one location (similar to about a month ago in the Southeast). Those are the fun, tricky little boogers in our atmosphere that like to stir things up. Jerks. [end digression]. The chemical modelers wanted to sample some smoke. So, we planned a mission for smoke with a flight plan all figured out to penetrate the higher concentrations. Well, as the plane neared the smoke during the flight, along came a shortwave and moved it all out of the flight path – sorry team. I love the weather – it really likes to mess with you when it has the chance. Predicting exact orientation, time of arrival, and intensity is universally beyond our control, though. We can tell that shortwaves will move through a system, with a range of intensity, and get an approximate time for arrival and orientation, but no combination of models will agree on all results.

Time is flying by, I no longer know what day of the week it is. I only know if it’s a flight day or a planning day. Planning days are great! Certain teams have different objectives, so when conditions are favorable for more than one teams’ objective, a debate ensues! Us forecasters have to provide an unbiased overview of the weather in support of all objectives (hurricane… hurricane… hurricane…). However, when conditions are favorable for one objective, we will mention it (hurricane… hurricane… hurricane…).

Monday (26 August) was the first of a two-day flight, also known as a suitcase flight. Nick mentions what that is below, so I’ll leave the explanation to him. On Monday’s weather briefing, all the models pointed to showers or thunderstorms within the area of Ellington (lingo: VCSH or VCTS. SH: SHowers, TS: ThunderStorms, VC: within the ViCinity (5 to 10 statute miles)). The DC-8 is a beast and can take off in mostly anything, while the ER-2 is a little fragile. It has giant wings and a tiny fuselage which requires strict criteria for takeoff and landing. Its wings are so big (this sounds like the beginning of a “yo momma” joke) that when it taxis it has special little training wheels to support them. The instruments aboard the ER-2 are susceptible to water, as well (why is a meteorological research vessel’s instrument susceptible to water?).

Days go into planning these flights, so telling a group of people who are anxious for a research flight that they might not get to do it, is daunting. The forecast basically was looking like spotty convection. So, we thought the ER-2 could take off possibly between one of these atmospheric precipitable tantrums. The plane needs to be ready to fly and take off 2 hours before takeoff. The pilot (basically a super-low orbit astronaut; 99% of the earth is below this person as they fly at high altitudes), who wears a form of a space suit, can only be suited up for so long, so the flight can’t really be delayed for an extensive period of time. But I digress… again. We were instructed to come in and assist in the decision on whether the flight was a go or no-go. Well, we had to disappoint – it was too much of a risk for the instrumentation to get wet. However, the DC-8 got off without a hitch, and was en route to the Yosemite Rim Fire. The ER-2 had to sit in its hanger and wait for Tuesday.

On Tuesday (27 August), the second leg of the suitcase flight, conditions were quite nice, and the ER-2 could takeoff to study air up along the Mississippi River Valley and Great Lakes region. The DC-8 took off from Spokane, WA to follow the smoke plume toward Winnipeg (sorry Canadians for the smoke, eh). Well… here is where the horn tooting comes in (enter XKCD comic about “tooting your own horn”. Google it, it’s hilarious.). Earlier in the flight plan while the plane was in Montana, I was looking at satellite and radar and noticed some small convection starting near Lake Manitoba. It seemed that the region’s conditions were favorable for afternoon convection (there was a sufficient amount moisture, to keep it minimal). Our NEXRAD system doesn’t supply data outside US territories. This is what the on flight crews have access to if they would like to look. It’s granulated and not the hires stuff we look at.

 I took it upon myself to read the met discussion from Environment Canada (cool name). A special advisory was issued for southern Manitoba indicating that the region, indeed, was going to experience some heavy convection. Yahoo! The plane’s 3rd waypoint down the road was right in the path of these storms – which were producing a good amount of lighting, including some cloud-to-grounds (CGs), by now. The plane was flying somewhere around 16,000 feet, and these storms were towering to 40,000+ ft. I sent out a warning on our communications channel (it’s really just an instant messenger called “xchat”… it’s not dirty… the “x” is just network lingo stuff) that the plane was headed for a direct hit with these storms. They were still 30+ minutes out, so there was no immediate danger, however, the storms were not going away – they were building.

Radar image of building storms with lightning, flight track, and DC8 position. Blue icons are in cloud lightning strikes, while red are cloud to ground. (Photo credit to Tristan Hall)

Radar image of building storms with lightning, flight track, and DC8 position. Blue icons are in cloud lightning strikes, while red are cloud to ground. (Photo credit to Tristan Hall)

Ten minutes passed by and the storms were getting bigger, so, I sent out another warning with a graphic and a little more detail, and informed the big cheeses directly (who couldn’t see it due to the NEXRAD dilemma). They caught on that they couldn’t see the convection and that the plane was heading right into an electrified storm (that’s right! listen to the grad student who’s been staring at the radar all day!). Now, the plane has on-board radar, but it only can see so far, and the way these storms were tracking (along the next leg of the trip), the plane would have had to perform some crazy maneuvering to get around them and get back on track. So, the big cheeses informed the pilots on our xchat to confirm that there were troubling storms ahead, and that some moron wasn’t just saying “beware”. The plane was rerouted and on it went. I know… exciting right? Well it was! I directly had an influence into a flight track and… yea… I’ll say it… saved 40+ lives (but seriously, it wasn’t that dramatic, I kid). Now when I say something on xchat, I hope these people understand “thall” means business!

Like sands in an hourglass, these are the days of my life in SEAC4RS. Keep following along, welcome if you’re new, and I thank you for reading.

Welcome to SEAC4RS

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This post and its photos were provided by Tristan Hall, a student from Florida State University on the Studies of Emissions and Atmospheric Composition, Clouds and Climate Coupling by Regional Surveys (SEAC4RS) airborne science mission.

I first arrived in Houston for SEAC4RS on Sunday, 18 August. My colleague Nick picked me up from the airport after a less-than-perfect landing. This was my second time arriving at Houston-Hobby, and 7th flight in two months; so naturally, I’m a pro. I took the stairs down to baggage and lugged my under-50 lbs baggage to go meet Nick at the pick-up area.

Nick drove me to the hotel which is basically an apartment; including a kitchen with all the necessary amenities, and a living room. He had to go back to his shift at Ellington; so I was left to let my imagination run wild on what to expect tomorrow morning. Later my professor took me out for dinner, to my surprise, for all the work I’ve done back in Tallahassee. Thanks!

On Monday we took off bright and early for Ellington. When I arrived, I was in awe that I’m at a NASA-affiliated facility. The Meatball is everywhere; there are planes, barbed-wire fences, and guards. I have to go into an office to get my visitor badge – they forgot to sign me up for the “restricted sector” badge… again. 🙂  Oh well, I’ll make do. Off to the hanger where our command center is.

Being thrown into a shark tank doesn’t even come close to describe how I felt on day 1. Holy Toledo! 0-60 in 1.5 seconds. Everybody had already been in the swing of things for a couple weeks, by now, so I had to catch up fast! I had to look at the weather! Best Job Ever! Knowing how to forecast is more than just looking ahead – it’s looking behind, as well (that’s philosophical for ya there). I had been preoccupied in Tallahassee for the past couple weeks setting up a lab for ozonesonde measurements, so I had slacked a little on the whole “looking behind” aspect. In other words, I had no idea what the weather was like.

Max and I filling a balloon for an ozonesonde launch. (Photo credit to Antonio Riggi)

Max and I filling a balloon for an ozonesonde launch. (Photo credit to Antonio Riggi)

I spent all day trying to absorb everything. Every forecast model and how it compares to every other model. Every forecast discussion. Every historical satellite image I could find. Every variable of every model we have plotted on our FSU website and every other website out there (seriously, there are a plethora). Everybody here was on the same level as each other and knew what to expect of one another. I was overwhelmed. I felt underprepared, and I felt like I would never catch up.

This was a nowcasting shift, which is similar to forecasting, but only a couple hours in the future. The flight plan was pretty set, and conditions weren’t too nasty so it was an easy shift. I spent most of my time looking back, getting to know the weather. Dinner was soup and salad at the hotel lobby. Free is good.

Day 2 was a little better. On non-flight days we give a met briefing to lead off the science meeting. I got to see what to expect, and more importantly, what’s expected of me in the days to come. We report on current and future conditions, and point out specific regions of interest if they align with the science objectives of the campaign. Interests include convective outflow, smoke transport, and the North American Monsoon (NAM). After this, my time was spent understanding the atmosphere and its dynamic beauty. There is a trough in the east that just won’t go away, a cut-off low off the coast of California — with nothing steering it, a front moving down through the Great Lakes region, and nothing exciting over the Atlantic, to name a few. Dinner was “BBQ” provided by the hotel. It was chopped beef (not pork; or brisket!); however, it was sweet with a little too much liquid smoke. What’s with these Western folk? However, I had 2 buns, so I’m not really complaining. I do an excellent job of eating!

Day 3 – Wednesday – another nowcasting shift. I felt way more comfortable today. I was getting into the swing of things, and feeling more comfortable speaking up. The flight for today wanted to sample convection before it was intense. So, we had to find where convection was going to be and direct the planes to it. We settled on northern Alabama which had plenty of little popcorn cumulus. A view of the flight path could make you sick, it’s so swirly. Imagine a child drawing scribbles on a piece of paper. The pilots get in to the clouds and just go wild. The return path for one of the planes looked like it would intersect too strong convection; so it got really exciting for about an hour — and tense. People were depending on our radar skills. Once the planes made it past the bad convection, Nick and I displayed our GR2Analyst skills recreationally. Those non-met folks were amazed — cross sections; 3D plots; they kept coming back with new people in-tow asking us to show the 3D images. Dinner was stuffed peppers from the hotel! Not too shabby, again.

So far, I’ve seen an F-4, the 747 Space Shuttle Carrier, several NASA jets (which, for some reason nobody will let me drive. C’mon there are like 20 of them, let me take one out!), the DC-8 taxi, and the ER-2 take off and land, which has a chase car… Yup, a car that chases it as it lands, how do I get in that?!  It has stabilizers on the back because it goes so fast!). I am learning fast, having a wonderful time meeting all these people, and having an EVEN MORE wonderful time forecasting and nowcasting. This is truly an experience of a lifetime. Thanks professor!

ER-2 Chase car. Can I ride in this? (Photo credit to Tristan Hall)

ER-2 Chase car. Can I ride in this? (Photo credit to Tristan Hall)

I hope you enjoyed this post, and follow along for the next month and a half!

New Blogger Bio – Tristan Hall for SEAC4RS

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This post and its photo is provided by Tristan Hall, a student from Florida State University on the Studies of Emissions and Atmospheric Composition, Clouds and Climate Coupling by Regional Surveys (SEAC4RS) airborne science mission.

Born and raised in northwest Ohio in a little town called Genoa, my first recollection of wanting to be a meteorologist was when my elementary school guidance counselor asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I chose the natural response that a child does – leaning toward the heroic profession of doctor – but my second and more enthusiastic response was “tornado chaser”. What second grader chooses storm chasing as their profession? Well, my guidance counselor thought the same evidently, because she laughed at me. It’s funny how some experiences really stick with you.

After receiving degrees in physics and geography from Appalachian State University (go Mountaineers!) with concentrations in atmospheric processes, I am now a Master’s student in meteorology at The Florida State University, conducting research under Dr. Henry Fuelberg. My focus is on pollution transport via mesoscale influences and deep convection in the Strait of Malacca. I’ve been storm chasing once and caught a tornado near Fairview, OK. I love everything weather, and am a major sucker for nature shows. Sitting and staring at the sky is one of my favorite things to do (and then looking at the most recent satellite and radar scans to confirm what I’ve seen). How does a meteorologist know if it’s raining outside their house? They look at the radar. I live with my girlfriend (the love of my life), Catherine, who is a brilliant PhD student in musicology, and our cat Felix T.C. Mendelssohn Williams-Hall, who is a professional nap-taker. After my Master’s, I plan to move on to the big leagues of academia and get my PhD, as well. After we’re both complete, we’ll have a household of doctors: BEWARE!

I am beyond excited to be part of the meteorology forecasting team here at SEAC4RS. We are responsible for forecasting the meteorology for the science flights and reporting our information in daily briefings, and nowcasting during flights to help direct planes in and out of convection. This is truly a once in a lifetime experience, and I am very grateful to my professor for allowing me to be a part of this adventure!

Above the Clouds

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This post was provided by Nick Heath, a student from Florida State University on the Studies of Emissions and Atmospheric Composition, Clouds and Climate Coupling by Regional Surveys (SEAC4RS) airborne science mission.

Today’s blog comes from above the clouds, high in the atmosphere in which we live…the one SEAC4RS hopes to better understand.  I’m flying home for a week.  Speaking of flying, these first 20 days also have flown by, and I can’t wait to get back to Houston for 30 more.  As a graduate student who spends most of his time reading peer-reviewed articles and writing computer code, SEAC4RS has provided me a humbling and rewarding experience thus far.  I gave my first weather briefing, led a morning pre-flight brief, and contributed as much as possible whenever I could.  SEAC4RS also has taught me the importance of urgency.  Us scientists (and humans for that matter) always like to be prepared.  We like to plan ahead.  Unfortunately, with weather forecasting, there is no planning ahead (I know that sounds contradictory!).  Things are always changing; so to provide the best forecast, you have to wait for the latest data.  This means that you are forced to procrastinate.  Then, like the people waiting for their boarding zone to be called, there is a huge “rush to the gate.”  But, I’ve found that this isn’t always a bad thing.  Sometimes urgency brings out the best in everyone.  You become much more efficient, you work as a unit, and you learn what works and what doesn’t.  Think of a wild animal out on a hunt: they wait and wait until an opportunity presents itself…they then exhaust an extreme amount of energy in a very short period…followed by relaxation and the reward of having their next meal.  Our process is not all that different…we “pounce” on the latest data, exhaust a lot of energy into our briefing, and then get to relax and let the feeling of “a job well done” soak in…very primal of us! In short, I have learned that procrastination is not always a bad thing, and may in fact be beneficial in some cases…(but not for school work, of course!).

As for the status of SEAC4RS, things are going great!  We flew into some smoke a few days ago, and then spent the all of Friday in the southeast U.S. examining chemistry, radiation, and convective clouds.  Next on the agenda is what we call a suitcase flight: the DC-8 will travel into the northwest U.S., stay the night, and fly back the next day.  This allows a lot more time to study the region.  While in the northwest, we will be studying smoke from wildfires occurring in both California and Idaho.  These fires have been a hot topic in the news lately, and SEAC4RS aims to understand their impacts on the large scale.

Lastly, as I am flying, the plane just encountered some “rough air” at 36,000 ft.  Next time you are flying, and experience turbulence, and get that strange feeling in your stomach, think of SEAC4RS.  These scientists are chasing rough air, flying around storms, putting their life in danger, for the hopes of better understanding the processes that affect our world.  Not your typical scientists, that’s for sure.

The view I had while writing this blog.  Not a bad way to “work.” (Photo credit to Nick Heath)

The view I had while writing this blog. Not a bad way to “work.” (Photo credit to Nick Heath)

Unforecasted Fun!

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This post was provided by Nick Heath, a student from Florida State University on the Studies of Emissions and Atmospheric Composition, Clouds and Climate Coupling by Regional Surveys (SEAC4RS) airborne science mission.

The science flight on Friday, August 16th was a big success.  What’s more, a member of the met team was selected to fly at the last minute.  Lesson learned: always be prepared!  Sean Freeman, an undergraduate meteorology and computer science major at Florida State University, put his name on the list as a potential “flyer.”  Unfortunately, he found out bad news on Thursday: the manifest was full…he would not be flying on the DC-8.  Then, early Friday morning, he received a call that a spot opened up…he now was on the list!  I rushed him to Ellington, he received his safety brief, and he was off to experience airborne science first hand.

The goal of Friday’s science flight was to examine the North American Monsoon.  In general, a monsoon is a seasonal reversal of the wind pattern.  During the summer, this comes about because land (e.g., the North American continent) heats up a lot more than the surrounding waters, thus creating a large-scale temperature gradient.  Elevated terrain, such as the mountainous regions of Mexico and the western U.S., enhance this process.  The net result is a lot of thunderstorms over the continents, which transport pollution into the upper levels of the troposphere.  Once there, the pollution has the potential to impact climate on a global scale.  So, understanding this phenomenon is very important to understanding our climate.

The planes took off at ~10 AM CDT.  They headed west along the U.S./Mexico border, sampling aged outflow from thunderstorms associated with the monsoon.  They then turned northeast, and headed toward Colorado.  On their way to Colorado, they passed over the large Four Corners power plant, and were able to sample its “pollution plume.”  Once over Colorado, they encountered a smoke plume from wildfires.  The flight scientists took advantage of this situation and sampled the smoke plume.  The DC-8 flew legs through the smoke, while the ER-2 got remote sensing data from above.

Storms were beginning to pop up around Houston; so the ER-2 headed home to beat them.  The DC-8 headed home, but did some more science on its way back.  Over Texas, it descended close to the surface to sample air from a large oil field.  As the DC-8 got closer to Ellington, a large cluster of thunderstorms decided to pop up and race them home!  Met team member Sean Freeman was lucky enough to ride in the cockpit for landing, so he saw these storms up-close and personal.  A few commercial airlines even had to make emergency landings at Ellington to avoid these storms.  The DC-8 landed just before the rain and lightning reached Ellington…success (well kinda, the storm was not forecast by the met team, so no success for us!).

Below are some great images Sean provided from his trip on the DC-8.  Overall, this flight was a great success and accomplished many of the science objectives of SEAC4RS!

Flight tracks for the DC-8 (blue) and ER-2 (red) for 16 August 2013. (Photo credit to Brian Toon)

Flight tracks for the DC-8 (blue) and ER-2 (red) for 16 August 2013. (Image credit: Brian Toon)

Not your typical airplane!  The DC-8 truly is a flying laboratory.  Here, the scientists are all busy operating their instruments during the flight on 16 August.  (Photo credit to Sean Freeman)

Not your typical airplane! The DC-8 truly is a flying laboratory. Here, the scientists are all busy operating their instruments during the flight on 16 August. (Image credit: Sean Freeman)

The power plant that was sampled as the planes headed toward Colorado, as seen from the DC-8. (Photo credit to Sean Freeman)

The power plant that was sampled as the planes headed toward Colorado, as seen from the DC-8. (Image credit: Sean Freeman)

Cloud tops of the large thunderstorms that the DC-8 was “racing” home.  This unpredicted cluster of storms caused a lot of problems for air traffic in the Houston area. (Photo credit to Sean Freeman)

Cloud tops of the large thunderstorms that the DC-8 was “racing” home. This unpredicted cluster of storms caused a lot of problems for air traffic in the Houston area. (Image credit: Sean Freeman)

A view you probably won’t see too often…in front is the NASA shuttle carrier aircraft, a Boeing 747.  Behind that, sits a commercial aircraft that made an emergency landing at Ellington.  Not a bad view for the passengers on that plane!  (Photo credit to Sean Freeman)

A view you probably won’t see too often…in front is the NASA shuttle carrier aircraft, a Boeing 747. Behind that, sits a commercial aircraft that made an emergency landing at Ellington. Not a bad view for the passengers on that plane! (Image credit: Sean Freeman)






First Science Flight for SEAC4RS!

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This post and photos were provided by Nick Heath, a student from Florida State University on the Studies of Emissions and Atmospheric Composition, Clouds and Climate Coupling by Regional Surveys (SEAC4RS) airborne science mission.

Today was a busy day at Ellington Air Force Base.  SEAC4RS “took off” with our first science flight out of Houston.  Three planes were deployed:  the NASA DC-8, the NASA ER-2, and the SPEC Learjet (based in Huntsville, AL).  The goals of the flight were to examine southeastern United States chemistry and to fly through a growing cumulus cloud (but not growing too rapidly, of course!).

As a member of the meteorology (met) team, Jim Bresch rose before the sun to give last minute weather consultation for the flight.  Then, some of the met team prepared for “nowcasting,” while others put together a weather briefing for the remainder of the week (I told you it was a busy day!).  Nowcasting involves using current conditions to make short-range forecasts for the next 1-2 hours.  We had a group of people looking at the latest radar and satellite imagery and relaying information to the planes in real time.  The goal is to keep the planes safe, but also guide them to their target locations (such as a growing cloud).

The planes took off around 8 AM CDT, and things got lively in mission control.  The nowcasters were nowcasting, the flight navigators navigating, and everyone had something to contribute to the flight.  Things got interesting around 2PM when the DC-8 and Learjet began looking for storms to survey over northern Alabama.  Members of the met team were watching the radar and satellite to help the planes find a storm they could fly into.  For the weather nerds out there, the planes were looking for an isolated storm whose top was not higher than ~25,000 ft.  The nowcasters were using GR2Analyst to find these conditions, and relaying information and pictures up to the DC-8 in real time.  Eventually, the planes found a storm they could survey, and the Learjet and DC-8 both made passes through it.

While the planes were flying, the science team was preparing plans for the next flight, which is to take place Wednesday, 14 August 2013.  We had a meeting at 11 AM.  Mission meteorologist Lenny Pfister gave the weather outlook for the rest of the week.  Following that, Pablo Saide, from the University of Iowa, presented the atmospheric chemistry forecast for the same time frame.  Many interesting things were presented: very anomalous weather patterns, lots of convection, smoke plumes travelling into our region all the way from Idaho, and a large prescribed fire set to take place on Wednesday in South Florida.  In the end, the science team decided to focus the next flight on SE USA chemistry and the North American Monsoon.  Flight tracks currently are being drawn up to make the most of our situation.  It is amazing to watch the mission leaders synthesize all of this information, and then design a brilliant flight plan to capture all of the major features.  I guess there is a little artist in all of us scientists!

I will be back with more updates after our next flight.

People at tables and computers.

Mission control at Ellington Air Force Base. Things started getting busy after the DC-8 and ER-2 took off.

Fuelberg on a telephone at a desk.

Meteorologist Henry Fuelberg on his phone giving current weather updates to help coordinate a ozonesonde launch as a part of SEAC4RS.

Radar image of the involved aircraft.

Radar image showing the DC-8 (blue) and Learjet (green) as they meet up to sample a convective cloud. Nowcasters were watching this closely and relaying storm top heights to the scientists onboard the DC-8.

Learjet in the center of the convective cloud

The Learjet in the center of the convective cloud, as seen from GR2Analyst. Great science in the making!


New Blogger Bio – Nick Heath for SEAC4RS

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This post and its photo was provided by Nicholas Heath, a student from Florida State University on the Studies of Emissions and Atmospheric Composition, Clouds and Climate Coupling by Regional Surveys (SEAC4RS) airborne science mission.

My name is Nick Heath.  I am a PhD student studying meteorology at Florida State University under Dr. Henry Fuelberg.  I started surfing when I was 16, and I immediately became interested in the weather and where waves come from.  This lead me to FSU, where I received a Bachelor’s in meteorology in 2011 and, more recently, a Master’s in June 2013.  My research involves chemical transport modeling.  Specifically, I am interested in how thunderstorms transport pollution from the surface to the upper troposphere and lower stratosphere.  However, I am still a bit of a weather nerd on the side and I get to indulge in this passion here at SEAC4RS.  As a member of the meteorology team, I will get to help prepare weather briefings for each science flight.  When the planes are in flight, I sometimes will be a “nowcaster,” meaning that I will be watching radar and satellite to help keep the planes away from dangerous thunderstorms.

When I’m not doing research or forecasting, I enjoy surfing, basketball, reading, and cooking.


Smoothing out the Kinks

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How does science work? Though romanticized as a string of exciting, accidental discoveries, in reality, the bulk of scientific research happens in the prelude to discovery–the humbler, though no less exciting, process of troubleshooting. The first day of an expedition is typically the most hectic, as researchers settle into the rhythm of fieldwork, smoothing out the kinks along the way. The Surprise Valley team encountered its fair share of issues to troubleshoot today.  

Sierra taking off

The first day of the field season began at 6:30 AM this morning, with the team members loading the equipment and driving to nearby Cedarville Airport. There, they would send SIERRA, a small aircraft capable of flying without pilot or crew, known as an unmanned aerial system (UAS), on its first flight mission to collect magnetic data along a preprogrammed course using an instrument called a magnetometer. The team will use this data to map the underground faults and fractures in Surprise Valley, which may help circulate hot water and minerals throughout the numerous hot springs in the area. This information will be critical for predicting the likelihood of earthquakes in the region and the damage they may do, informing land and water use decisions, and tapping the hot spring fluids as an energy resource. 
When USGS arrived at the airport, SIERRA engineers and aircraft itself awaited them, as did Corey Ippolito and Ritchie Lee, both from NASA Ames Research Center, who developed the scientific instrumentation, or payload, which SIERRA uses to collect magnetic data. The team will integrate the payload into a new experimental UAS next year which can make higher-level cognitive assessments of the sensor data it receives, allowing it to plan and perform a complete survey mission without human intervention. The vehicle will adjust its flight path according to magnetic fields and environmental conditions in order to maximize data collection in areas of interest and reduce flight time over other areas. With a specified pre-programmed flight path that does not adapt to the magnetic environment, SIERRA could miss important features that will not be apparent until after the data is downloaded post-flight. The team will later compare the datasets collected by the two systems with the goal of developing a cheaper, more effective airborne survey system.

Both groups of engineers had already set up the ground base station, where they would communicate with SIERRA through signals relayed from the aircraft to their computers. At about 9:00 AM, SIERRA’s engine rumbled to life, its propeller whirring vigorously. Just as fast as it sped down the runway, it was aloft, disappearing into a tiny glint of sunlight above the hills along the eastern edge of the valley.  A pilot in a separate aircraft, the chase plane, took off after the SIERRA, which he would monitor throughout its flight per Federal Aviation Administration regulations. 

SIERRA began by flying north, south, east, and west in a box-shaped path. It then flew within the box, first undulating up and down, then banking to the left and right, in a flight sequence known as a compensation box. An instrument on SIERRA called a fluxgate magnetometer would provide information about the magnetic field at every possible position of the aircraft, known as compensation data. When the team performs a magnetic survey, they can subtract the appropriate magnetic field values based on SIERRA’s position at any given point in time. This would allow researchers to correct for variations in the magnetic field that can arise when SIERRA maneuvers, which could obscure signals generated by the geologic structures the scientists are interested in. Unlike the cesium magnetometer in the wingtip, which tells researchers only the strength of the field, the fluxgate also indicates the direction of the field, parsed into three different axes.

The aircraft then began a detailed survey, collecting magnetic field data along tightly spaced east-west lines from two of the three regions that Jonathan Glen of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and Anne Egger of Central Washington University, the lead geoscientists on the project, had found magnetically interesting according to ground-based studies they performed during a previous visit to Surprise Valley. 

Corey and Ritchie at the ground-based stationLeft: Corey Ippolito, co-principal investigator on the Surprise Valley project and developer of the SIERRA payload system (front), with Ritchie Lee (rear), monitoring SIERRA’s flight parameter and magnetic data from the ground base station

Meanwhile, the SIERRA ground crew monitored how the aircraft moved through the air based on magnetic field direction data collected by another type of fluxgate magnetometer, relayed from an antenna installed on the aircraft’s underbelly. SIERRA also sent information on its flight parameters, such as its altitude, GPS coordinates, and speed. At the same time, the USGS and NASA engineers’ computers received the scientific data SIERRA collected in addition to flight parameter data, transmitted by an antenna on the nose of the aircraft.  Besides the compensation data, these include the magnetic field data measured by SIERRA’s magnetometer, as well as the UAS’ distance from the ground, collected by an instrument called a laser altimeter. Knowing SIERRA’s altitude will allow the team to correct for variations in magnetic field strength due merely to differences in distance from a magnetic source, since the strength of a magnetic field fades the further one moves away from the source. 

Out in the field, SIERRA relayed the same flight parameter and magnetic data it relayed to the science payload team to an ATV equipped with a computer, GPS, and a radio receiver. SIERRA transmits payload data to the radio receiver, which is then stored on a hard drive on the ATV. This ensures that the team has a backup in case the computer on board the SIERRA fails or the aircraft crashes. Since following SIERRA’s exact path is unfeasible on ATVs, a researcher in Jonathan’s  lab drove along a north-south path, perpendicular to SIERRA’s flight path, which allowed the ATV to remain within range of the aircraft at all times

Sierra landingAfter SIERRA landed, the wireless communication system that the payload engineers had set up to download flight parameter and magnetic data from SIERRA malfunctioned. In the past they had discussed transferring data directly from SIERRA through a network cable, although in the end they opted to use a commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) wireless system, or a wireless system available for sale to the general public. COTS products are designed to be easily implemented into existing systems without the need for customization. With the wireless system, the engineers could avoid directly accessing the aircraft’s sensitive instruments. However, the COTS system was not able to withstand SIERRA’s vibrations during the flight test.  With the wireless system down, the payload team developed a workaround that requires the aircraft to be physically tethered to the ground station to download the data after each flight.

Meanwhile, the compensation data from SIERRA’s fluxgate magnetometer yielded highly unusual results. The data from a test of the fluxgate when it was first installed looked reasonable to the team, with variations not too far from expected values. They did notice some anomalies, which they believed they could solve only by recalibrating the instrument or remounting it away from magnetic noise, signals from magnetic sources that may distort the magnetometer’s measurements, called magnetic noise. Currently the fluxgate sits beneath the wing, not at the tip, but toward the center of the aircraft, which houses numerous electronics. Both recalibrating and repositioning the fluxgate would be prohibitively expensive.  Instead, the researchers decided to use the instrument as it was calibrated. The compensation still corrected for SIERRA’s magnetic field, but not as precisely as it should. The researchers hoped that the remoteness of Surprise Valley, away from steel-framed buildings, electric lines, and other magnetic sources would enable them to make minor adjustments to correct for aircraft-related noise. 
The team troubleshooting the wireless systemLeft: Project co-principal investigator Jonathan Glen  (lower left) with NASA and Geometrics engineers, troubleshooting SIERRA’s malfunctioned wireless system, which prevented the USGS and payload systems engineers from remotely downloading flight parameter and magnetic data to their ground base station computers

At the end of the day, the payload systems engineers hauled the base station computers to the USGS group’s house, where they spent hours poring over the compensation data, trying to pinpoint the source of the anomalies.  Then an idea occurred to the team: maybe the problem was limited only to the fluxgate and not dependent on the aircraft, which they could confirm by examining just the fluxgate in the house, where magnetic noise is minimal. If working properly, the fluxgate’s measurements should closely reflect the Earth’s magnetic field, a known value. If they don’t, then the problem must be due to the fluxgate itself.  

Jonathan and Corey called SIERRA lead engineer Randy Berthold to ask if one of the SIERRA engineers could remove the fluxgate magnetometer from the aircraft so that they could run the test on the software and hardware in isolation. Once Randy agreed to meet them at the Cedarville Airport in a few minutes, past eight at night, Jonathan, Corey, Ritchie, and Geometrics engineer Misha Tchernychev bolted out of the house, jumped into one of the trucks, and sped to the airport. There, Randy and another SIERRA engineer, Ric Kolyer removed the fluxgate, which the USGS, NASA, and Geometrics crew then took home for a long night of troubleshooting. 

Troubleshooting the fluxgate magnetometer
Right: Corey (left) and Ritchie (right) troubleshooting the fluxgate magnetometer.

Team members camped out with the fluxgate in the dining room, exhausted yet still talking and joking animatedly between swills of coffee.   After a few hours, the team discovered that the fluxgate could collect data in two modes—calibrated or raw. The fluxgate was currently, as during the flight, in calibrated mode. When they team took measurements in this mode, they saw magnetic field values far from those of the Earth. When they switched the instrument to raw mode, they saw the values they expected. Clearly the fluxgate’s calibration needed fixing. 
Tomorrow morning, the crew will try to determine the correct calibration themselves by moving the fluxgate through different maneuvers, which will yield the mathematical relationship between the raw and improperly calibrated versions of the data, allowing them to convert today’s data to raw data. They hope that a technician from Applied Physics, the manufacturer of the fluxgate, during tomorrow’s Labor Day holiday, in which case they can provide the proper calibration, another equation that the team can apply to the raw data from today to generate properly calibrated results. Otherwise, the team can calculate the correct calibration themselves based on the readings from the fluxgate maneuvers. Ideally, the technician may even be able to drive a new instrument up from the Bay Area so that the team can avoid having to undo and redo the calibration for each dataset.  

“Field work can be very stressful,” said Jonathan. “It requires a certain kind of temperament. I’ve learned to live on very little sleep.” He paused, then grinned. “But that’s the best part of fieldwork.  I’m so thrilled to get to work with Corey and Ritchie.  They’re really great…. We’re really privileged to be able to do the work we do.” What he said was true, even when “the work” is troubleshooting. Imagine how much more so on a day of smooth operation.   

On this blog, also hosted at USGS’ website and Scientific American’s Expeditions we’ll share updates on daily missions, glimpses of life in the field, and profiles of individual team members. We’re excited that you’ll be joining us!


All photos by Melissa Pandika.  You can follow the Surprise Valley team on Twitter @SV_UAS, and view more photos of the team in action on their Flickr photostream.


About the Author: Melissa Pandika is a journalism master’s student at Stanford University.  Previously, she studied molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley and investigated how highly aggressive brain tumors evade therapies that block blood vessel growth at the University of California, San Francisco. You can follow her on Twitter @mmpandika.

Demonstrating Science

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Ames scientist Kimberly Ennico wrote this blog entry on July 20, 2012 while working on a field test for RESOLVE, the Regolith and Environment Science and Oxygen and Lunar Volatile Extraction. 

43rd anniversary of “One small step, One giant leap”
I write this after the conclusion of our multi-day field demo of the RESOLVE payload. Prior to any activity, as with all organized operational tests, a clear set of success criteria is identified. RESOLVE, having being defined by NASA’s exploration and technology divisions, has the following goals:
CAT 1 Objectives (Mandatory):
1. Travel at least 100m on-site to map the horizontal distribution of volatiles
CAT 2 Objectives (Highly Desirable):
1. Perform at least 1 coring operation.  Process all regolith in the drill system acquired during the coring operation
2. Perform at least 1 water droplet demo during volatile analysis.
CAT 3 Objectives (Desirable):
1. Map the horizontal distribution of volatiles over a point to point distance of 500m.
* Surface exploration objective is 1km
2. Perform coring operations and process regolith at a minimum of 3 locations.
3. Volatile analysis will be performed on at least 4 segments from each core to achieve a vertical resolution of 25cm or better.
4. Perform a minimum of 3 augering (drilling) operations
* Surface exploration objective is 6 augers
5. Perform at least 2 total water droplet demos.  Perform 1 in conjunction with hydrogen reduction and perform 1 during low temperature volatile analysis.
CAT 4 Objectives (Goals):
1. Perform 2 coring operations separated by at least 500m straight line distance
* Surface exploration is 1km
2. Travel 3km total regardless of direction
3. Travel directly to local areas of interest associated with possible retention of hydrogen
4. Process regolith from 5 cores
5. Perform hardware activities that can be used to further develop surface exploration technologies
At first glance, they are pretty much very operations based: 100 m (328 ft) here, 1 km (3,281 ft) there, three locations, three auger (drilling) ops, etc. They were the driving forces of this demo, no pun intended. Our main focus was to demonstrate the technology and the operations. However, as each day went on, you could hear on the voice loop the engineers asking more and more about what we scientists – those on site or in our “Ames science backroom” – were discussing and observing with each new scan, spectra, and image. Also, we actually found ourselves demonstrating science in this activity. That was the whole beauty of this project: science enabling exploration and exploration enabling science. Each team member, excited about roles played by others, united by our shared excitement in the concept of pushing our ability to explore beyond our home planet.
At the end of our field demo, we clocked 1,140 m (3,740 ft.) total in-simulation roving distance, 475 m (1,558 ft.) separation travel distance between hot spots, with total separation of traverses greater than 500 m. (1,640 ft.) We located nine hot spots, completed four auger operations, four drill operations, and four core segment transfers to the crucible (oven) for volatile analysis and characterization. We had seven remote operations centers plugged in to our central system. We logged 185,918 rover positions, collected 227,880 near-infrared spectra, 136,273 neutron spectrometer measurements, 139,703 drill measurements, 3,630 image data products, and wrote 2,446 console log entries.

Band-depth (a measurement of abundance) for a water band (at 1.5 microns) plotted for the whole simulation. Most of the water detected this way turned out to be “grass” in the spectrometer’s field of view, but we did rove over some pretty “dry areas.” Variety indeed. The red line shows our traverse path on July 19. (Right) Counts for the neutron spectrometer for the simulation. This aerial photo shows how we traversed over a range of geological features, a mixture of glacial (old outwash) and volcanic (olivine basalt) deposits. Image credit: NASA
While some of the ISRU technology demonstrations focused on pre-arranged drill tubes filled with pre-planned test materials, we were particularly excited to drill into the native tephra. Its saturated soil (up to 20%) is more consistent with the Mars surface rather than the lunar surface. If successful, this test also would show practical drill performance parameters for future Mars drill missions. The approved procedures allowed us to core down to a maximum of 50 cm (19.6 inches). We reached 45 cm in about 56 minutes. Then, instead of putting the sample into the oven, the core tube was “tapped” out onto the surface while the rover moved forward to lay out the sample for evaluation by the near infrared and neutron spectrometers. This was a new procedure developed jointly by the rover, drill, and science teams, which demonstrated a new way of extracting material and quickly evaluating it.
Artemis Jr rover DESTIN (drill) acquiring sample from native soil. Image credit: NASA
Ames science back room
The Ames science backroom team, clockwise from top left: Erin Fritzler, project manager; Bob McMurray, system engineer; Kayla La France, intern; Ted Roush, scientist; Carol Stoker standing, scientist; and Jen Heldmann, scientist. Not shown: Stephanie Morse, system engineer; Josh Benton, electrical engineer; and me – Kim Ennico, scientist. With our team of nine people we staffed three consoles in two shifts, for eight-days.
Ames science team members at computer monitors
Ames science team members in Hawaii. They were our main interface for the Ames backroom to the Flight, Rover and Drill teams, whose leads were in Hawaii, but whose support teams were at KSC in Florida, JSC in Texas, and CSA in Canada. Left to right: Rick Elphic, Real Time Science and Tony Colaprete, Spec. Photo by Matt Deans.
To end on a fun note: mid-way through the sim, I got my updated console request so I could monitor the neutron spectrometer and near infrared spectrometer simultaneously to look for correlations (this combination of techniques had never been done before). I spotted this one (image below) as we were roving about. Camera imagery had been down, so we were “in the dark” from visual clues. Upon seeing the two signals, I called out a strong hydrogen and water signal to the Science team in Hawaii over the voice loop.
Screengrab of one of my console screens. Top trace is the neutron spectrometer Sn counts showing a modest signal. Bottom traces are two different near-infrared water spectral regions that showed changes at the same time.
And it turns out we roved over this, a trench of water and a piece of aluminum foil reflecting the clear blue Hawaiian skies. The neutron spectrometer is designed to detect hydrogen at depth, whereas our near infrared spectrometer is more suited for surface water.
A test target along traverse path for July 19. Image credit: NASA
This target, like others we traversed over the past week (buried pieces of plastic, netting, etc.) had been dug out in the wee hours of the morning by other members of the RESOLVE operations team. Good way to get a few hours exercise after being cooped up behind monitors!
So what’s next? A “lessons learned” exercise is called out for next week. The different teams wrote down our learning points daily when they were fresh in our minds. We will review them as a team and move forward with the next steps – building a version that works in a vacuum. And our Ames backroom science team has identified a few science papers to write. We are excited!
For more information about the In-Situ Resource Utilization analog field test and the RESOLVE experiment package, visit
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