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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

NASA's Characterization of Arctic Sea Ice Experiment (CASIE), Science Instrumentation Evaluation Remote Research Aircraft (SIERRA)

NASA's Fires Up Arctic Drone (sans Sidewinder) For Climate-Change Expedition


A team of experts from NASA and several of the nation's leading universities are using an unmanned aircraft expedition to study the receding Arctic sea ice to better understand its life cycle and the long-term stability of the Arctic ice cover.

Scientists using 2009 NASA satellite data have reported an alarmingly rapid and extreme loss of the oldest and thickest types of ice from within the Arctic Ocean. Since 1988, the oldest ice types have declined 74% and today cover only 2% of the Arctic Ocean, compared to 20% coverage in the 1980s.

The unmanned aircraft is used like a miniature spyplane targeting thick, old slabs of ice as they drift from the Arctic Ocean south through Fram Strait -- which lies between Greenland and Svalbard, Norway -- into the North Atlantic Ocean. This unmanned aircraft maps and measures ice conditions below cloud cover to as low as 300 feet, weaving a pattern over open ocean and sea ice.

"We're attempting to answer some of the most basic questions regarding the future of the Arctic's sea ice cover," said James Maslanik, a research professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Colo., and principal investigator for the NASA mission. "Not only does this change affect the total amount of ice in the Arctic, but it also affects the ability of the ice cover to resist increased warming."

Greenland NASA's Characterization of Arctic Sea Ice Experiment (CASIE) successfully flew the first of a series of unmanned aircraft system (UAS) flights in coordination with satellites.

NASA's CASIE, which runs through July 24, is the aircraft campaign portion of the larger, NASA-funded project titled "Sea Ice Roughness as an Indicator of Fundamental Changes in the Arctic Ice Cover: Observations, Monitoring, and Relationships to Environmental Factors. This three-year research effort combines satellite data analysis, modeling, and aircraft observations. The project also supports the goals of the International Polar Year, a major international scientific research effort involving many NASA research efforts to study large-scale environmental change in Earth's polar regions.

The mission is being conducted from the Ny-Alesund research base on the island of Svalbard, located not far off the northeastern tip of Greenland. Mission planners are using satellite data to direct weekly flights of a NASA flight-certified UAS laden with scientific instruments.

Aircraft provide a necessary perspective on Earth system processes and serve to complement NASA satellite missions. UAS flights are of particular value where long duration or long-range measurement requirements preclude a human pilot, or where the remoteness and harshness of the environment put pilots and aircraft at risk.

NASA Ames Research Center's Science Instrumentation Evaluation Remote Research Aircraft, or SIERRA, is a medium class, medium duration UAS originally designed by the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL). Researchers at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., developed a partnership with NRL to evaluate the utility of this class of aircraft to the NASA Earth science community. The relatively large payload (ca. 100 lbs.) coupled with a significant range (500 miles) and small size (20-ft. wingspan) makes it an attractive observational platform that complements NASA's current suite of modified science aircraft. This UAS conducts very low altitude missions for tropospheric chemistry sampling and remote area surveys, such as arctic ice reconnaissance.

"Ny-Alesund is really a cool research station with more than 100 researchers present from many nations during the summer," said S. Pete Worden, director of NASA Ames Research Center. "It was a great day for flying here in Ny-Alesund. We got SIERRA out on the runway and fired up and ready for our first flight. We are really excited about the research we can do on polar ice characteristics."

Go SIERRA! Posted by Casey Kazan.

The CASIE expedition is providing mission updates on Twitter and Blogs

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