Langley Team Prepares for FIRST Research Trip to Chile
By: Patrick Lynch
Researchers from the Science and Systems Engineering directorates saw what will be their office for much of this summer strapped down to a flatbed trailer and head off for Colorado on Monday.
From July through October, several researchers will take part in a three-month field campaign high in the Atacama Desert of Chile, at a barren location almost equal to the elevation of the base camp on Mount Everest. The campaign will employ a spectrometer to measure the greenhouse effect of far-infrared radiation, which has been largely unexplored but is thought to account for half of the radiation Earth loses to space. After a dry run in Colorado in April, the campaign in Chile will run from mid-July to late October.
The instrument began its journey on Monday inside a modified shipping container, which was lifted by crane onto a trailer behind Building 1202. The container – 20 feet long by 8 feet wide by 8 and a half feet tall – will double as the research station in Colorado and Chile. It has been outfitted with desks, flooring, cabinets and -- perhaps most important -- supplemental oxygen. The ability to focus for long periods of time on the scientific tasks at hand would be almost impossible without it.
The field campaign was made possible largely because center management stepped in and purchased the modified shipping container/field office, said Marty Mlynczak, the principal investigator for the Far-Infrared Spectroscopy of the Troposphere (FIRST) instrument. The unit cost about $125,000 and will be available for future field campaigns.
“We’re really thankful for that,” Mlynczak said.
FIRST is a prototype instrument and a test-bed for the kind of spectrometer that ultimately could be deployed on the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory (CLARREO) satellite. CLARREO is classified among the highest priority climate science missions, and NASA headquarters recently named the Science Directorate at Langley to lead the project. It is not set to launch for several years.
But long before that, the group of researchers from Langley need to test it out in Colorado and ultimately complete their field campaign in Chile. The test run later this month is designed to make sure all systems are working and that the team packed everything they need, said Rich Cageao of the Systems Engineering Directorate.
Cageao said he wasn’t worried watching the container start its cross-country trip on a flatbed trailer. “The nervous part is making sure you have everything in place before it leaves, and that you can anticipate what you need so you don’t have to go to The Home Depot that doesn’t exist,” Cageao said.
The Chile research site is on a mountain called Cerro Toco at about 17,500 feet above sea level. The mountain rises above the Chajnantor Peninsula. This region of Chile is home to several astronomy research efforts that used the spot for the same reason the FIRST researchers are: The extremely dry air means thinner water vapor. FIRST will be looking at the water vapor above 17,000 feet and the water vapor below, the thickness of which would prevent observations of far-infrared emissions at higher altitudes.
“We’re above 50 percent of the atmosphere at this point,” Cageao said.
“We are interested in water vapor at and above 17,000 feet because the far-infrared emission from water vapor there controls the energy balance of the atmosphere and climate,” Mlynczak said.
Joining Mlynczak and Cageao on the campaign probably will be Glenn Farnsworth, Joseph Lee and David Johnson. All details aren’t final, but they’ll probably work in shifts of two. When not at the “office,” they will stay at a much lower elevation, about 8,000 feet.
The FIRST instrument was built at the Space Dynamics Laboratory at Utah State University, and Utah State researchers will provide support to the test run in Colorado and the campaign in Chile. The instrument was first tested on a balloon flight in New Mexico in 2005, and on a second balloon flight in September 2006.
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