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Earth Venture - Dryden Aircraft Chosen for New Science Missions
July 20, 2010

Two NASA Global Hawks parkedTwo of NASA's Global Hawks in their blue-and-white paint scheme are parked side by side on the Dryden ramp. Bearing NASA tail numbers 871 and 872, the two autonomously operated unmanned aircraft will be used in upcoming science missions. (NASA Photo / Tony Landis) Hurricanes, air quality and Arctic ecosystems are among research areas to be investigated over the next five years with a series of new NASA airborne science missions.

Dryden will be directly involved in operation of at least three of the five competitively selected proposals, the first investigations in the new Venture-class series of low-to-moderate-cost projects established last year.

The National Research Council in 2007 recommended that NASA undertake such small, quick-turnaround, targeted science investigations, which complement the agency's larger research missions. All of this year's selections are airborne investigations. Future Venture proposals may include those with small, dedicated spacecraft and instruments flown aboard other spacecraft.

The missions will be funded during the next five years at a total cost of not more than $30 million each. Costs cover initial development and deployment through data analysis. Approximately $10 million was provided through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act toward the maximum $150 million funding ceiling for all five missions.

Dryden is among six NASA centers, 22 educational institutions, nine U.S. or international government agencies and three industrial partners involved in the missions. The five missions were selected from among 35 proposals.

Three Dryden aircraft modified for environmental science missions will be involved in a like number of projects. They include a Gulfstream III carrying a synthetic aperture radar capable of penetrating vegetation and soil to depths of several feet, and both of NASA's Global Hawk remotely operated unmanned aircraft, which have been adapted to carry atmospheric sampling instruments.

The G-III carrying the UAVSAR instrument, which was developed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, will be the platform for the Airborne Microwave Observatory of Subcanopy and Subsurface investigation. This mission will focus on North American ecosystems, critical components of the global exchange of greenhouse gas carbon dioxide and other gases within the atmosphere.

To improve understanding of the size of this exchange on a continental scale, this investigation addresses uncertainties in existing estimates by measuring soil moisture in the root zone of representative regions of major North American ecosystems.

The Airborne Tropical Tropopause Experiment will study chemical and physical processes in the atmosphere at different times of year to improve understanding of the processes controlling the flow of atmospheric gases into tropical regions. Water vapor in the stratosphere significantly affects Earth's climate, the ozone layer and the amount of solar energy the Earth retains. Investigators will conduct four airborne campaigns with NASA's Global Hawk aircraft from bases in California, Guam, Hawaii and Australia.

The Hurricane and Severe Storm Sentinel mission will involve both of NASA's Global Hawk aircraft, flown high above major storms in the Atlantic Ocean basin on flights lasting up to 30 hours. Predicting the intensity of hurricanes is less reliable than predicting the location of hurricane landfall, in large part because the processes involved in intensity change are poorly understood. The Global Hawks will deploy from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia during the 2012-14 Atlantic hurricane seasons.

The two unmanned aircraft are currently based at Dryden's main facility, while the G-III is based at the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, Calif.

The remaining two experiments will involve science aircraft based at Glenn Research Center, Cleveland, Ohio, Langley Research Center, Hampton, Va., and the Wallops Flight Facility.

In the Carbon in Arctic Reservoirs Vulnerability Experiment, an integrated data set will be collected that will provide unprecedented experimental insights into Arctic carbon cycling, particularly into the release of important greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane. A lack of detailed measurements has prevented thorough understanding of the release and absorption of carbon from Arctic ecosystems and the carbon's response to climate change.

Instruments aboard a Twin Otter aircraft from Glenn Research Center will collect the first simultaneous measurements of surface characteristics controlling carbon emissions and key atmospheric gases.

Although satellites can measure air quality factors like aerosols and ozone-producing gases in an entire column of atmosphere below them, distinguishing the concentrations at the level where humans live is a challenge.

The Deriving Information on Surface Conditions from Column and Vertically Resolved Observations Relevant to Air Quality experiment will provide integrated data of airborne, surface and satellite observations taken simultaneously to study air quality as it evolves throughout the day. NASA's B-200 and P-3B research aircraft, based at the Langley Research Center and Wallops Flight Facility, respectively, will be flown in concert to obtain samples of a column of the atmosphere over instrumented ground stations.

The Earth System Pathfinder program is managed at Langley Research Center for the agency's Science Mission Directorate. The missions in the program provide an innovative approach to addressing Earth science research, and offer periodic windows of opportunity in which new scientific priorities may be accommodated.

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