Flying laboratory helping scientists understand Earth's climate

A flying laboratory in Ellington Field is helping scientists understand our climate.
August 22, 2013 4:26:10 PM PDT
A flying laboratory at Ellington Field is helping scientists understand our climate.

This mission took five years worth of planning. Scientists have three aircrafts and two months to collect as much information as possible from the skies then bring it back to the ground to analyze it.

"We see things that normal people don't even get to experience in their whole life," NASA pilot Tim Williams said.

Williams flies a high-altitude airplane called the ER-2 to the edge of space.

"It's just amazing. You see the curvage of the earth, you see darkness above you. The whole world looks different," Williams said.

When hurricanes or large storm systems develop, these planes fly over and around studying them.

"No other aircraft on the planet is rigged like this aircraft, specifically to carry scientific equipment of the scale that we can put on this large, heavy lift aircraft," said Dr. Alex Pszenny with NASA.

We had the rare and unique opportunity to climb aboard NASA's flying laboratory, the DC-8.

"What scientists like about it is they can sit right by their instruments, turn them on or off, adjust them, check the calibration," NASA program scientist Hal Maring said.

Forty-five scientists work aboard the DC-8 on any given eight-hour flight. NASA researcher John Hair showed us how he's monitoring smoke in the atmosphere, from the fires in Idaho right now.

"We're looking at those being affected all the way over into northern Texas and even further, but where is sample is in northern Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Wyoming," Hair said.

When fire or storms push pollution or natural emissions into the atmosphere, scientists and pilots like Williams are right there to track it. Their mission is grueling. But the reward is better predicting air quality and climate for years to come.

"Wouldn't it be nice to understand those kind of phenomenon that affect so many people?" Williams said.

Those planes plan to take off again first thing Friday morning. The mission is scheduled to wrap up in September.

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