Research at Ames

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Areas of Ames Ingenuity: Airborne Sciences
A collage of airborne science images

About airborne sciences

Examining our own world and beyond – from the sky


Sea ice conditions during the time of the CryoSat-2 underpass over the Weddell Sea on Nov. 7, 2012.
NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy accompanied by a NASA F/A-18 safety chase aircraft pass in review during a test flight.
visible light image of Nadine over the Atlantic
Visible continents and an infrared Atlantic map frame the path of Nadine, staggering like a drunken monkey, overlapping the disciplined flight paths of the global hawk drone
Ames has long played a leading role in NASA airborne sciences, conducting studies of the celestial sky and our own planet from airplanes. By flying above most of the water vapor in the atmosphere, airplanes with upward-looking infrared telescopes can peer into the Universe, unlocking important clues of star and planet formation. At these altitudes, IR telescopes operate in a near-space environment, and yet are able to return each morning to integrate new state-of-the-art instrumentation.

Lower flying airplanes with downward looking science instruments are providing important evidence about the changing nature of our climate. Many of the Earth science observations have direct applications to society, providing policymakers with information critical to assessing the global state of our planet. These data complement observations obtained by satellites, and offer the promise of regional and local measurements on rapid timescales.

Ames' role

For 40 years, NASA Ames has provided leadership in airborne infrared astronomy and airborne Earth science campaigns.

Ames is leading the science operations for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), an airborne infrared observatory. SOFIA is the next-generation airborne observatory, following its predecessor, the Kuiper Airborne Observatory (KAO). Apart from its many scientific discoveries, including the discovery of rings around Uranus and an atmosphere around Pluto, KAO studied water and organic molecules throughout the Galaxy, providing important new clues to star formation. Perhaps its greatest legacy, however, is the impressive list of astronomers who gained experience in designing and building science instruments for not only airplanes, but also for space- and ground-based telescopes.

SOFIA flies a 2.5-meter diameter telescope aboard a modified Boeing 747 airplane, and is embarking on a 20-year mission to study the astrochemistry of the interstellar medium, while advancing theories into the formation and evolution of stars and planets. While operating out of Palmdale in the southern California desert, SOFIA science operations is managed and conducted at Ames.

The Earth Science Project Office (ESPO) at Ames manages NASA’s Earth science airborne campaigns. Such campaigns typically involve multiple aircraft and government agencies, numerous science instruments, and dozens of researchers – often in remote locations. Operation IceBridge (OIB) deploys aircraft and resources twice annually to measure the extent and thickness of Earth’s polar ice caps.

The Earth’s polar regions are very sensitive to climate change, and regular quantitative measurements conducted in these areas provide invaluable information on the reality and rate of climate change. Apart from overall management of airborne science campaigns, Ames researchers build instruments and conduct their own scientific research on important environmental and climatic issues in stratospheric chemistry and ozone depletion, climatic changes due to clouds, aerosols, and greenhouse gases, stratosphere-troposphere exchange, and perturbations in the chemical composition of the troposphere.

A new series of NASA Earth Venture missions are providing important new measurements important to advancing Earth science knowledge. The Ames-led Airborne Tropical Tropopause Experiment (ATTREX) is using Global Hawk robotic airplanes to study the atmosphere at altitudes of 13-18 kilometers. ESPO also manages the Hurricane and Severe Storm Sentinel (HS3), another series of Global Hawk flights designed to fly above and around hurricanes in order to investigate the processes that underlie hurricane formation and intensity change in the Atlantic Ocean.

For more information about ESPO, visit:

Featured example: SOFIA

What can we learn with a telescope in the sky?

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SOFIA’s mid-infrared image of Messier 42 with comparison images of the same region made at other wavelengths by the Hubble Space Telescope and European Southern Observatory. SOFIA is the world’s largest airborne observatory, featuring a 2.5-meter diameter infrared telescope provided by the German space agency. Flying above 40,000 feet, SOFIA gets above most of the atmospheric water vapor that otherwise impedes infrared radiation from the cosmos. Flying out of California’s Mojave desert, the airplane is capable of flying up to 160 nights annually, with scientists and educators on board.

One huge advantage of SOFIA is that it returns each morning, allowing researchers to change science instruments and to update them with state-of-the-art sensors. Planning for mission and science operations is conducted at the SOFIA Science Center, operated by Universities Space Research Association, at Ames.

Featured example: ATTREX - Ames airborne science observes Earth’s atmosphere

How does stratospheric humidity impact greenhouse gases?

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NASA Global Hawk No. 871 banks to the right during a checkout flight in preparation for an unmanned aerial refueling demonstration with a second NASA Global Hawk. The five-year ATTREX airborne sciences mission uses Global Hawk UAVs to remotely study the tropical tropopause layer (TTL) separating Earth’s troposphere from the higher stratosphere. Most of the world’s weather occurs in the troposphere, where temperatures decrease with altitude. At the TTL, the temperature gradient changes and increases with altitude in the stratosphere. It is at this boundary layer where small changes in water vapor content have large impacts on the Earth’s energy budget and climate.

Future changes in stratospheric humidity and ozone concentration in response to changing climate are significant climate feedbacks. Uncertainties in the chemical composition of the atmosphere at these heights limit our ability to predict future changes in ozone. By improving our understanding of the processes that control how much water vapor gets into this region from lower in the atmosphere, the ATTREX investigation will directly address these uncertainties in our knowledge of the climate system. ATTREX will consist of four annual campaigns, with flights from southern California, Guam, Hawaii, and Australia.

For more information about ATTREX, visit:

Featured example: IceBridge

How is NASA gaining a better understanding of the processes connecting the polar regions with the rest of the global climate system?

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View of Vinson Massif with Mount Vinson, the tallest peak in Antarctica, located in the Sentinel Range of the Ellsworth Mountains. NASA’s Operation IceBridge (OIB) studies Earth's polar ice in unprecedented detail to better understand processes that connect the polar regions with the global climate system. Operation IceBridge (OIB) utilizes a highly specialized fleet of research aircraft and the most sophisticated suite of innovative science instruments ever assembled to characterize annual changes in thickness of sea ice, glaciers, and ice sheets. OIB collects critical data used to predict the response of earth’s polar ice to climate change and resulting sea-level rise.

These observations are filling an important gap until NASA’s next orbiting ice measuring satellite is launched in 2016. Ames manages Arctic campaigns from Greenland in the spring, and Antarctic campaigns from Punta Arenas, Chile in the autumn. OIB and other observations are revealing historic changes in the northern icecap, with the most models now predicting an ice-free Arctic Ocean during the summer by the end of the decade.

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