How a NASA Science Flight Is No Ordinary Journey



In order to put a snow satellite into space, you need to test the instruments from a plane first.

SnowEx is a 5-year NASA airborne campaign to work towards a future snow satellite mission and we need to find out what sorts of remote-sensing techniques will work best for different kinds of snow.

The only way to find that out is to actually take a bunch of different kind of sensors, put them on an airplane, fly them out in the field under real snow conditions, and that's exactly what we're doing.

What plane is being used?

The P-3. It's an old military plane. The military planes are loud, and vibrate, and they're cold.

Think of a commercial airplane. Take all the insides out. What you have there, what every plane will have, it’s what’s called seat rails. We use these. We build our instruments in, what we call, data racks. That's how we control the instrument. We will build our racks in such a way that they also attach on to these seat rails.

How else is the plane different?

So the walls of this aircraft, I find pretty interesting. They’re not solid like on your commercial. It’s like a piece of cloth you can actually remove and run wires, and run different instrument things and make it a lot easier to modify where your things are on the aircraft.

How do you check that the instruments are measuring snow accurately?

We have a lot of people on the ground collecting science data and they’re doing that to compare what we’re seeing with our instruments. It's a data comparison type deal. Flight lines are planned so that we specifically fly over wherever the ground truth people are with their instruments and taking their experiments.

What is the flight like?

So flying on the P-3 is really bumpy. We do a lot of maneuvers that you would never do on a commercial jet. High bank angles, sharp turns, really low flying. The lower you are, the more turbulent it is.

What are you doing on the flight?

So when I’m on a science flight, I’m checking to make sure the instrument's still running and taking data the way I want it to. Everyone's very focused on their instrument. You're constantly checking to make sure that the data's coming in. My job is to make sure all the instrument operators are looking at their instruments and that they’re collecting all the adequate data they need.

What is the goal for the first year?

The best thing that we can get out of SnowEx this year one is really to collect a multi-sensor data set over a wide range of conditions. These SnowEx science flights are the combinations of 2 plus years of work. It’s really exciting to be a part of something so big.