Blog | August 8, 2018, 07:08 PDT

Students study Earth systems on NASA's DC-8 flying laboratory

by Arie Feltman-Frank / NASA ARMSTRONG FLIGHT RESEARCH CENTER, PALMDALE, CALIFORNIA

Student Airborne Research Program (SARP) participant Arie Feltman-Frank aboard the DC-8 monitoring air pollution on June 25, 2018. Credit: NASA/Megan Schill

Student Airborne Research Program (SARP) participant Arie Feltman-Frank aboard the DC-8 monitoring air pollution on June 25, 2018. Credit: NASA/Megan Schill

My name is Arie and I am a 21-year-old student at the University of Denver studying environmental science. I am one of 28 students selected to participate in NASA’s Student Airborne Research Program, or SARP, an eight-week summer internship program that exposes undergraduate students to all aspects of airborne science campaigns, including data collection techniques and data analysis. Students from diverse STEM backgrounds were placed into four research groups—atmospheric chemistry, ocean remote sensing, land remote sensing, and whole air sampling—and they must complete and present a research project by the end of the summer.

I grew up in Lincolnshire, Illinois, and since a young age I have been fascinated by the scientific processes that influence our planet. I believe that every human has the right to live a meaningful and purposeful life predicated on the existence of certain universal guarantees, such as clean air to breathe, safe food and water to eat and drink, and preserved natural areas. Those values align with SARP and almost all other NASA Earth Science campaigns, as their main objective is to collect accurate and high-quality data about the land, ocean, and atmospheric properties of Earth to understand how our world is changing.

SARP participants, pilots, and flight specialists after their third and longest flight on the DC-8 on June 26, 2018. Credit: NASA/Megan Schill
SARP participants, pilots, and flight specialists after their third and longest flight on the DC-8 on June 26, 2018. Credit: NASA/Megan Schill

For this campaign, we were seated in NASA’s DC-8 flying laboratory, a unique plane with scientific instruments protruding from the windows. NASA’s DC-8 is not like any traditional commercial airline flight. It was once a commercial airliner but was repurposed by NASA’s Earth Science Division and is now one of the best research aircraft in the world for conducting airborne science. Prior to my flight, the aircraft completed flights for NASA’s Atmospheric Tomography Mission (ATom), an around-the-world airborne science campaign dedicated to studying the impact of human-produced air pollution on greenhouse gases and on chemically reactive gases in the atmosphere.

On this particular flight, we had instruments that measured the presence and relative concentrations of important atmospheric gases over regions in southern and central California, including the San Joaquin Valley. I could hear the faint crescendo of the aircraft’s engine and full-blast air conditioning system through my noise-canceling headphones. The scientists, flight engineers, and pilot talked over the on-board communication system. I listened intently to the scientists as they updated the crew on their instruments.

SARP participants Sujay Rajkumar and Kiersten Johnson on board the DC-8 operating Whole Air Sampling instrumentduring a science flight on June 26, 2018. Credit: NASA/Megan Schill
SARP participants Sujay Rajkumar and Kiersten Johnson on board the DC-8 operating Whole Air Sampling instrumentduring a science flight on June 26, 2018. Credit: NASA/Megan Schill

The aircraft flight path and maneuvers depend on the goals of a particular scientific mission. On this six-hour flight, we undertook spirals, loops, and Meteorological Measurement System (MMS) maneuvers, which are important for understanding the aerodynamics of the aircraft and its effects on measurements such as pressure, winds, and air flow. We also flew in turbulent conditions at various elevations and over diverse environmental gradients.

Student Airborne Research Program (SARP) participant Dallas McKinney, a meteorology major at Western Kentucky University, aboard the DC-8 experiencing the cockpit during a June 26, 2018 science flight. Credit: NASA/Megan Schill
Student Airborne Research Program (SARP) participant Dallas McKinney, a meteorology major at Western Kentucky University, aboard the DC-8 experiencing the cockpit during a June 26, 2018 science flight. Credit: NASA/Megan Schill

That being said, it may come as no surprise that my DC-8 flight was as turbulent as it was long; I actually ended up getting pretty motion sick on the mission. Getting sick is a sacrifice some make to collect the necessary data. Despite not feeling well, I was surrounded by passionate students, scientists, engineers, and flight specialists all cumulatively working to advance one of NASA’s core missions: to understand and protect our home planet.

I am excited to see all of the diverse and interesting projects that SARP 2018 will embark and present on at the end of the summer. I couldn’t ask to be in a better place or time here at NASA working with and be mentored by some of the best minds in the field.

This piece was originally published on NASA's Earth Expeditions blog.


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