NASA Podcasts

NASA Mission Update: AIRBORNE
04.27.09
 
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Scientists trying to unravel the mysteries of how our planet works, and what could threaten its health, are twice-dependent upon NASA's Airborne Science program. Its use of more than a dozen piloted and unpiloted aircraft at six NASA centers and flight facilities support and supplement the work of the agency's fleet of Earth-observing satellites.

Andy Roberts, NASA Airborne Science: "We're the only civilian agency in the world that routinely flies above 50-thousand feet."

The sensitive instrumentation used by a spacecraft to capture and measure what it sees below must be carefully calibrated to the highest standards. Airborne Science aircraft are dedicated to insure the sensors' accuracy and reliability.

Andy Roberts, NASA Airborne Science: "We're looking at a whole series of new satellites in the Earth Science division to launch. A lot of the sensors that will go on those satellites are right now being tested from our instrument incubator program on the aircraft. testing the algorithm developments and how we're actually gonna be able to utilize that data to help the society in the political policies that'll be generated."

Once the satellite data are in, Airborne Science often delivers context and meaning, providing the whats and whys to Earth scientists. An Airborne Science aircraft can travel and linger in places where a satellite simply can't get one snap shot: the polar ice caps, a tropical storm on the equator, the eye of a hurricane, returning with complementary sets of measurements, fresh atmospheric samples, and more detailed, multi-dimensional imagery.

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Airborne Science focuses its aerial work in six areas of NASA's Earth Science Division: Weather, climate, solid Earth, carbon cycle and ecosystems, water and energy cycles, and atmospheric composition.

Andy Roberts, NASA Airborne Science: "In the atmospheric composition area, one of the things we looked at years ago with ER-2, which happens to be behind me right now, we were able to go into the ozone hole. And the satellites would tell us there was a problem with the ozone hole, such as there was more ozone and less ozone at different times of the year. But we really didn't know what the numbers were."

Essentially, the ER-2 aircraft was turned into a flying chemistry laboratory. Its ultra-sensitive instruments pinpointed chlorofluorocarbons as the ozone hole culprit, and led directly to the Montreal Protocol. A recent report quantified how less healthful life on Earth would be without the 20-year-old international treaty banning CFCs.

Andy Roberts, NASA Airborne Science: "They were saying in the report that it was six times the amount of ultra violet radiation coming into areas like Washington, DC."

As discussions continue to heat up over climate change and the health of our home planet, NASA's Airborne Science program will help provide facts for cooler heads to study.

To learn more about NASA's Airborne Science Program, log onto www.nasa.gov/missions.

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