NASA Airborne Science Program (Part 4 / #NASASocial)

DougGulfstreamBefore we get to our main topic for today, we want to remind readers that we contributed to The Next Big Thing blog hop last week. Some of the writers we tagged have now posted their contributions; check HERE for Karen An-hwei Lee and HERE for Stephanie Vanderslice.

Less than two weeks ago, we spent an entire day as insiders at Dryden Flight Research Center exploring NASA’s Airborne Science Program. Today, we’ll talk about UAVSAR and one of the engineers involved. But you may want to review the previous posts in this series:

Part 1: Getting Ready & Defining Airborne Science

Part 2: Photos from Our Day at Dryden

Part 3: Flight Suit

NASA's Gulfstream-III
NASA’s Gulfstream-III

UAVSAR is one of NASA’s aircraft-based programs to collect data about the Earth’s surface, including vegetation, ice, volcanoes, and earthquakes. The project started in 2004, with instrument—radar—development, and began collecting data in 2009. The precise, but unwieldy, acronym stands for Uninhabited Aerial Vehicle Synthetic Aperture Radar.

What does that really mean? In practice, UAVSAR involves a pod, which is filled with electronic equipment, attached to the bottom of the Gulfstream-III we saw that day in the hangar. The pod we saw attached was one of two radar pods, each using a different frequency. The pod works by sending radio waves toward the ground. The waves bounce back up off the swathe of Earth and are received by the pod.

NASA's Gulfstream-III Cabin with Science Equipment
NASA’s Gulfstream-III Cabin with Science Equipment

Multiple flights over the same swathe—using Dryden-developed software and the aircraft’s autopilot to cover the same area within thirty-three feet—allows comparison of data over time so that scientists can see how the Earth is changing. UAVSAR has been used to study the movement and varied thickness of the oil slick after the Deepwater Horizon accident (see video below), the evolving characteristics of Mount St. Helens, the shifts in the glacial ice flows of Greenland, land changes after the earthquake in Haiti, and river flooding in Mississippi. The radar can even measure soil moisture in a designated area.

Yunling Lou, a radar engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), brought UAVSAR to life for us. She got her start in the field with NASA’s AIRSAR, a similar airborne science project based in NASA’s DC-8 that also tested new radar technology. During her NASA career, she’s moved back and forth between airborne and spaceborne science projects.

Radar Pod

In fact, she worked on the landing radar for Curiosity. Yes, that’s right, Yunling Lou, with whom we talked at length, helped to make sure that the Mars rover landed safely. For part of its descent—during those seven minutes of terror—success depended on Lou and the rest of her team.

Right now, though, she’s focused on UAVSAR and the wealth of data it provides to scientists worldwide. Last year, the project flew roughly eighty science flights, and Lou expects that, this year, the Gulfstream-III will fly roughly ninety flights using the radar pod we saw and another fifty flights with the other pod.

Lou no longer flies missions herself. Other, often newer radar engineers at JPL do that. She told us, “Deployment is a distraction or a break” from the regular work schedule at JPL. All the radar operators in the plane are also radar engineers. In other words, the people who use the equipment are the people who design the equipment.

Gulfstream-III Cockpit

What Lou likes most about her work breaks into two aspects. First, “There’s always a challenge every few years. […] The technical challenge is always there.” JPL keeps working to improve the radar so that the data becomes more useful, too. Second, the end-user scientist makes her feel relevant. She meets the scientists who use the data that is gathered through UAVSAR—the clients who want certain kinds of data—so she understands that the work she does makes a difference in how scientists understand what happens to the Earth.

What Lou does—what NASA supports through UAVSAR—matters to all of us. Even though we don’t analyze the data ourselves, the data from NASA’s airborne Earth sciences projects shape the way we understand the Earth and help communities deal with real-life problems like flooding. This extensive science project may well inform our decisions about the future and how to thrive on the shifting, flowing, forested surface of this planet.

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