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A Ride on the NASA IceBridge DC8

November 4, 2010

Ted writes:

Jenn and Martin are here in Punta Arenas. All is well, and we did the clothing issue right after they flew here on Tuesday. Jennifer is now known as “Polar Jenn” (see photo).

There is another group here in town, working on the NASA IceBridge project. IceBridge is a research program that measures the large ice sheets using several highly instrumented aircraft. NSIDC is the data management center for IceBridge, and I am working with a couple of people at NSIDC to augment the archived data with some derived products – taking two measurements, or three, and calculating a new parameter. The aircraft they use here is a DC-8, a large old jetliner that NASA has used for years on many projects. It can carry up to 40 people, in addition to the dozens of instruments, so Martin (who is on the IceBridge User Working Group for NSIDC) and I decided to request a flight on board. We got our chance Thursday.

The flight plan was simple: a round trip to the South Pole. The concept is to use a very accurate laser altimeter (actually two) to survey an area where many satellite data tracks converge near the pole. This will allow a careful calibration of all the data (mostly ICESat -1 data).  On the map, the route looked a bit like a golf tee with a golf ball on top, but very stretched out. At 9am we were lifting off the runway, bound for the South Pole at 40,000 feet and 12 hours round-trip.

The feel aboard the IceBridge DC8 is somewhere between a commercial flight and a shuttle mission. Everyone is relaxed and chatty, joking around, but there is an undercurrent of technical precision. We all wear headphones when seated to communicate with the pilots. Shortly after take-off, they announced they were ready to “execute maneuvers.” I looked at Martin quizzically. What maneuvers? The huge plane then began to pitch up and down like a car on a hilly road, followed by some snappy wing rolls. Those big planes we fly in every day? they are a -lot- more nimble than we ever let them be in the airline world.

Inside, it is surprisingly large: most of the seats are removed, and the remaining 40 seats are all business class size, scattered around the plane. Most of them are in pairs right in front of large electronics stations for the instruments. The sensors are poking out of about seven holes in the aircraft, and there’s a big pod, like a blister, on the bottom of the plane that holds a special ice-penetrating radar. We have two lasers, three cameras, something like 12 GPS, an infrared heat-sensor, and a coffee maker. I’m pretty sure the panic starts when the coffee maker breaks down.

It was a long, rather peaceful day, chatting with the instrument teams, getting ideas for the data products and the archiving work that NSIDC has to do, snacking, and watching the largest mass of ice on earth roll beneath us.

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