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Flying over thin ice

Speed read
  • NASA’s IceBridge is the largest airborne survey of Earth’s polar ice ever flown
  • Three types of radar collect data about snow accumulation, ice thickness, and terrain below the ice
  • The 5 TB of data collected on every flight are used by scientists to study rapidly changing conditions in the Antarctic

With the addition of a new base camp and a new aircraft, NASA’s longest-running airborne mission is better equipped to study sea ice and glaciers in the fast-changing region of West Antarctica. And with the support of technology created by Indiana University (IU), the mission is gathering and processing more information than ever.  

IceBridge, an airborne mission that monitors changes at the Earth’s poles, surveys snow and ice conditions with three types of radar.

For the past nine years, IU and the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets (CReSIS) at the University of Kansas have worked with NASA’s Operation IceBridge to collect data about polar ice caps. IU provides IT support for the missions and assists in processing the enormous amounts of data the mission generates, helping improve the models of the physical interactions of glaciers, sea ice, and ice sheets for scientists to study.  

In the past, the mission has flown out of Greenland, Antarctica, and Chile. In 2017, IceBridge introduced a new base of operations in Ushuaia, Argentina, to facilitate travel on the P-3 aircraft, which has a shorter range than the DC-8s used for previous missions.

<strong>Polar field engineer</strong> Aaron Wells in Argentina, preparing to board a 12-hour data collection flight to Antarctica. Courtesy Aaron Wells. Aaron Wells, polar field engineer with IU’s UITS Research Technologies, said the change maximizes the amount of time used for actual information-gathering in comparison to time in flight. “We fly from the southern tip of Argentina down to Antarctica, collect all the data, and then fly back,” Wells said. “Those are typically 12-14 hour days, including pre- and post-flight work.”

Data is gathered using three radar systems located in the plane’s belly and wings. Accumulation Radar measures how much snow has accumulated on the surface level; Snow Radar studies the thickness of snow on top of sea ice to help determine the thickness of the ice; and the Multichannel Coherent Radar Depth Sounder (MCoRDS) shoots all the way down to the bedrock to map the terrain below the ice.

The Forward Observer supercomputer captures the data streams and makes multiple copies of the information, providing the scientists with nearly instant access to preliminary images during the flight.

<strong> Ice ice baby. </strong> IceBridge has produced unprecedented three-dimensional views of Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets, providing scientists with valuable data on how polar ice is changing in a warming world. Courtesy NASA/John Sonntag.The data gathered by this mission is used to track changes in sea and land ice. IceBridge researchers fly over the ice at the same time the TanDEM-X radar-based satellite travels overhead. “We use the Snow Radar data to validate the satellite data,” Wells said. “Because we fly the same areas yearly, it allows researchers to model year to year and study any rate change.”

Each flight can result in the collection of up to 5 terabytes of data—the entire season can range from 100 to 350 terabytes. Forward Observer captures the data streams and makes multiple copies of the information, providing the scientists with nearly instant access to preliminary images during the flight.

Previously, the mission gathered data and brought it back to the base to be duplicated and preserved—a process taking up to 18 hours. The use of the Forward Observer not only makes data gathering more efficient, it also eliminates the risk of losing the only existing copy of the collected information.

NASA pilots fly from 6-11 missions over West Antarctica, the continent’s fastest-changing region. When the notoriously difficult weather is calm, they take advantage of autopilot to steer them along the desired flight line. Courtesy NASA.Wells ensures the safe travel of all the hard drives and servers relating to the mission. “I put the data online for CReSIS so they can download it and begin the transfer from the hard drives to DC-WAN2 (Data Capacitor Wide Area Network 2—a high-speed data facility for accessing and sharing large amounts of data remotely),” Wells said.

Once the data is processed and backed up, it is used to create images of literal slices of the snow, ice, and bedrock for scientists to study.

In addition to decreasing the mission’s distance from Antarctica, the Argentinean location and the use of the P-3 Orion aircraft led to participation in the search for the ARA San Juan, a diesel-electric submarine in service with the Argentine Navy.

P-3 planes are used by the U.S. Navy for submarine hunting, due to their ability to fly slowly at low altitudes. Because of its role in the IceBridge mission, the plane is also equipped with technology to detect fluctuations in the Earth’s gravity, as well as infrared cameras and radar systems that might assist in locating the submarine. Sadly, the search and rescue mission was unsuccessful, and the submarine remains missing.

Wells and the rest of the Operation IceBridge crew will head to Greenland this spring to study the ice on the other side of the world.

Read the original article on Indiana University's website here.

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