NASA’s DC-8 and ER-2 science aircraft will take to the skies over the southern United States this summer to investigate how air pollution and natural emissions, which are pushed high into the atmosphere by large storms, affect atmospheric composition and climate.
The most complex NASA airborne science campaign of the year will be conducted from Houston’s Ellington Field, which is operated by the agency’s Johnson Space Center. The field campaign draws together coordinated observations from NASA satellites, aircraft and an array of ground sites.
More than 250 scientists, engineers and flight personnel are participating in the Studies of Emissions, Atmospheric Composition, Clouds and Climate Coupling by Regional Surveys (SEAC4RS) campaign that begins Aug. 7 and continues through September. The study is sponsored by the Earth Science Division in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. Brian Toon of the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at the University of Colorado in Boulder is SEAC4RS lead scientist.
Aircraft and sensors will probe the atmosphere from top to bottom at the critical time of year when weather systems are sufficiently strong and regional air pollution and natural emissions are prolific enough to pump gases and particles high into the atmosphere. The result has potential global consequences for Earth’s atmosphere and climate.
“In summertime across the United States, emissions from large seasonal fires, metropolitan areas and vegetation are moved upward by thunderstorms and the North American monsoon,” Toon said. “When these chemicals get into the stratosphere they can affect the whole Earth. They also may influence how thunderstorms behave. With SEAC4RS we hope to better understand how all these things interact.”
SEAC4RS will provide new insights into the effects of the gases and tiny aerosol particles in the atmosphere. The mission is targeting two major regional sources of summertime emissions: intense smoke from forest fires in the U.S. West and natural emissions of isoprene, a carbon compound, from forests in the Southeast.
Forest fire smoke can change the properties of clouds. The particles in the smoke can reflect and absorb incoming solar energy, potentially producing a net cooling at the ground and a warming of the atmosphere. The addition of large amounts of chemicals, such as isoprene, can alter the chemical balance of the atmosphere. Some of these chemicals can damage Earth’s protective ozone layer.
The mission will use a number of scientific instruments in orbit, in the air and on the ground to paint a detailed picture of these intertwined atmospheric processes. As a fleet of formation-flying satellites known as NASA’s A-Train passes over the region every day, sensors will detect different features of the scene below. One benefit of this thorough examination of the region’s atmosphere will be more accurate satellite data.
NASA’s ER-2 high-altitude aircraft will fly into the stratosphere to the edge of space while NASA’s DC-8 flying science laboratory will sample the atmosphere below it. In addition to the NASA aircraft, a Learjet from SPEC Inc. of Boulder, Colo., will measure cloud properties.
“By using aircraft to collect data from inside the atmosphere, we can compare those measurements with what our satellites see and improve the quality of the data from space,” said Hal Maring of the Earth Science Division at NASA Headquarters.
The SEAC4RS campaign is partly supported by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. NASA scientists involved in the mission come from NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif.; Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.; Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.; and Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.
NASA’s Earth Science Project Office at Ames manages the SEAC4RS project. The DC-8 and ER-2 research aircraft are managed by NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center and based at Dryden’s Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, Calif.