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Sensing the Atmosphere of an Arctic Mission
Arsineh Hecobian Photograph of Arsineh Hecobian. Credit: NASA
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In April 2008, scientists flew aboard NASA aircraft equipped with an array instruments to study the arctic atmosphere, as part of the Arctic Research of the Composition of the Troposphere from Aircraft and Satellites (ARCTAS) field campaign. Arsineh Hecobian, of the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, participated in ARCTAS by flying on the DC-8 to monitor the Georgia Tech instrument, the Particle into Liquid Sampler, or PILS. In her own words, Hecobian contributes the following about her arctic experience...

Mission Plan: The Meeting of the Giants

Have you ever felt small and vulnerable? Well, try that when you are standing on the tarmac surrounded by NASA DC-8, NASA P-3 and NOAA P-3 airplanes. I am always in awe of getting into these metal giants and their harsh majesty and gentle care. I like to think of them as live entities with tough exteriors to battle the elements during flight and a soft interior to protect our instruments and us. Which reminds me, I have to get some chocolate for the upcoming flight!

Well, the gentle giant that takes cares of me is a NASA DC-8 airplane. Near the end of a three-week campaign in Fairbanks, Alaska, at around nine o'clock in the morning, the DC-8 and the two P-3 airplanes were "holding a meeting." We also have our own pre-flight meeting where people who are on the flight manifest have to be accounted for. After discussing the flight path and objectives, everyone hurries to get to the airplane and do a final check of their instrument.

I fly with the instrument that operates on the plane. As I cross the icy path on the tarmac, I wave to the airplanes and see them smile in return. Yes, this is going to be a good flight, the meeting of the giants went well!

Cowboys in the Air

How to prepare coffee on an airplane? Well, not the way I did! We have a coffee pot and a microwave on the NASA DC-8 airplane. With flights that range between 8-10 hours, coffee becomes an essential ingredient of any scientific endeavor, and I almost caused one of our flights to have sleepy data (I mean scientists).

The coffee maker on the airplane was empty. As I tried to contain my horror, I started looking for instructions on how to operate this complicated instrument. And there was no chance of asking for instructions from other people. Can you imagine a sleepy scientist giving you instructions on how to make coffee? Don't even try!

So, I took my fate in my own hands and decided to take a chance and treat this coffee maker like the one I have at home. That was my first mistake! The second one was ripping (accidentally) the filter that held the coffee and using it anyway. And this is how I made my first cowboy coffee (non-filtered and too strong) while flying at about 30,000 feet in the air. The good news is no one complained! I guess that is the good part of having sleepy flight-mates.

The Music on the DC-8

One of the interesting things about participating in an airborne field campaign is the change in the day-to-day noises that we encounter. I like to observe life under normal circumstances, but here, participating in NASA's ARCTAS mission, I can fulfill my senses as never before. So, I'll share some of my experiences with you, listen carefully, can you hear it? The whoosh of the airplane engines, the beep of the instruments, the clang of pumps on the airplane, the chatter of the people on the airplane headphones …

I sit in front of my instrument and get ready for take-off. The airplane is a hub of activity. Scientists are making final adjustments to their instruments, the airplane techs are making sure everything is in shape for the flight, the airplane crew is discussing the plans for the upcoming flight and I am listening to everyone and everything at the same time!

After everyone is seated and buckled-in, we taxi to the runway and take off. I have the airplane headsets on, to be able to communicate with the other members of this flight. The high-pitched whining of the system and the noise of the airplane are like the lower layers of an orchestra. Whoom, whoom and ping, ping...

The noise of the pump from my own instrument and the sounds of other sensors around me comprise the second layer of this well orchestrated symphony. Hummm ... and ding, ding, ding...

I listen to the chatter of airplane crew and scientists on the headsets. Comments about where we are heading next and what we are seeking make a low melody. As soon as we encounter an interesting air mass, everyone joins voices and we bring the orchestra to its high point.

We are close to the end of this flight. The music for this score is coming to an end. As we are taxiing to where the airplane will park, someone tells a joke over the headset system of the airplane. The last strains of music are ending and I think...

Nice music, and contrary to popular opinion, we scientists can tell jokes, just not very funny ones! And I finish the symphony on the note of my own laughter...