NASA project to check out summer sea ice

FAIRBANKS — NASA is using a high-altitude, converted U2 spy plane to test technology over Arctic sea ice for future applications.

The long-winged ER-2 jet is based in Fairbanks for three weeks for testing and developing technology for satellite applications, KUAC reported.

The three-week project using airborne laser technology will allow scientists to get a preview of a satellite mission NASA plans to launch in 2017. It’s also a follow-up to a 2012 scan in Iceland using the laser technology, known as Lidar.

The flights are being conducted at 65,000 feet over Arctic sea ice and Alaska glaciers and collecting measurements. NASA said in a release that the onboard instrument also will take measurements of forests, lakes, open ocean and the atmosphere. The data will be sent to researchers on the ground.

The project will be used to develop a computer program to interpret the data collected, Assistant NASA research scientist Kelly Blunt said.

Blunt, who is in charge of the science work to be conducted, said similar data as the Iceland mission will be collected over summer sea ice with ponds on it.

“We’re going to assess how laser operates maybe differently in those conditions as opposed to the cold sea ice that we have based out of Iceland,” she said.

Test pilot Tim Williams said the plane flies so high that smaller aircraft traveling far below it look like toys. He likens the experience in the ER-2 to space travel and wears a space-pressure suit while at the controls of the single-seat plane.

“There’s a point where you actually can see stars and you can see the sun,” he said. “The reason you can see the stars is because the sun is setting and over the coverage of the Earth it’s throwing a shadow, which is nighttime over there and you can see stars. It’s amazing.”

Williams said he doesn’t expect to see the same thing on the flights out of Fairbanks because of the extended summer daylight.

The project operating out of Fairbanks began July 12 and continues until Aug. 1.


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