NASA’s Unmanned Aircraft 'Fired Up' For Arctic Sea Ice Expedition

The Science Instrumentation Environmental Remote Research Aircraft (SIERRA), an unmanned aircraft system used in the CASIE mission.Scientists using 2009 NASA satellite data have reported a 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 percent and today cover only two percent of the Arctic Ocean, compared to 20 percent coverage in the 1980s.

A team of experts from NASA, the University of Colorado, Boulder, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, Fort Hays State University, Kansas and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado are conducting 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.

"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."

Today, 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. The UAS 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.

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 near 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 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 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 (appproximately 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.

"Today, we demonstrated the utility of small to medium class UAS for gathering science data in remote harsh environments during the CASIE mission," said Matt Fladeland, CASIE project and SIERRA manager.

UAS observations are complemented by NASA satellite large-scale views of many different features of the Arctic ice. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS), aboard NASA's Aqua satellite, will be used to identify the ice edge location, ice features of interest, and cloud cover. Other sensors, such as the Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer - Earth Observing System (AMSR-E) on NASA’s Aqua satellite and the Quick Scatterometer (QuikSCAT) can penetrate cloud cover and analyze the physical properties of ice. By using multiple types of satellite products, more can be learned about ice conditions than is possible by using one or two data analysis methods.

"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."

The CASIE expedition is providing mission updates on Twitter and Blogs at:

For more information about NASA's Characterization of Arctic Sea Ice Experiment, visit:

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