When it comes to research, NASA's DC-8 jetliner is the only way to fly.
The plane resembles a typical commercial airliner from the outside, except for the giant NASA logo on its tail. But inside, it's loaded with cutting-edge tools that will be used to study greenhouse gases during a 26-day journey this summer that will take its crew around the world.
The Atmospheric Tomography (ATom) mission route includes a flight over the North Pole, then New Zealand, the tip of South America and on to the Arctic. Science instruments aboard the NASA DC-8, based at NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center in Palmdale, will collect information about greenhouse gases and other particles in the atmosphere.
"The flight path is one of the most exhilarating things that a person will get to experience," said Steven Wofsy, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Harvard University and ATom's project scientist. "You really get this sense of the atmosphere as a commons of the world because you're flying over the polar ice cap and then two days later you're in Hawaii and you're flying into the deep tropics with all of the amazing weather phenomena that occur there, and it's all one atmosphere."
The airliner can travel at 40,000 feet for up to 12 hours on the nearly monthlong voyage. ATom can zoom in for detailed measurements that are difficult to make using distant satellites in space, allowing researchers a chance to better understand hundreds of gases, including methane and ozone, in the atmosphere over oceans. The goal is to gain more information about Earth's climate and what the future might hold.
The plane will make up to 12 gentle descents to 500 feet above the ocean's surface, then climb back to 35,000 feet to get a wide range of samples at different altitudes.
Each stopover will last about two days, provided time for rest and data analysis.
"You really have to think about it from the perspective of what's required from when the plane hits the ground to when the plane leaves," said Erin Czech, ATom's deputy project manager with the Earth Science Project Office at NASA's Ames Research Center. "We need to find people places to stay, make sure they have cars to drive around."
The first ATom flight is scheduled for the end of July. It's the first of four deployments that will take place over the next three years.
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