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Aviation Systems Program Fly “Back-to-Back” Airborne Science Missions

The Aviation Systems Program at the University of Tennessee Space Institute (UTSI) started their 2011 summer flight research season with the successful completion of two major airborne science missions: the field study of atmospheric mercury in the Gulf of Mexico, and support to the NASA Mid-Latitude Continental Convective Cloud Experiment (MC3E) in Oklahoma.

In late April through early May, the aviation systems team participated in their second intensive field study of atmospheric mercury in the Gulf of Mexico region for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This state-of-the-art research included obtaining both ground and flight data to investigate the chemistry, transport, and deposition of mercury compounds in the atmosphere. Based at Trent-Lott International Airport in Pascagoula, Mississippi, the aviation systems team flew the UTSI Piper Navajo airborne science research aircraft in support of this mission. The Piper Navajo was specially fitted with advanced instrumentation, sensors, and data systems to collect airborne samples of mercury and other pollutants, including sulfur dioxide and ozone. UTSI completed science flights in a wide geographic area around the Gulf of Mexico, including many flights over the ocean, from as high as 15,000 feet to as low as 750 feet. Involved in this scientific campaign were scientists, engineers, and graduate students from NOAA’s Air Resources Laboratory, the University of Miami, the Georgia Institute of Technology, the Canaan Valley Institute, Florida A&M University, and UTSI.

Returning from Mississippi, the aviation systems team had one week to remove the atmospheric mercury instrumentation and equipment from the Piper Navajo and integrate the hardware required for the MC3E mission in Oklahoma. Based out of Ponca City, Oklahoma, UTSI teamed with scientists and engineers from the NASA Marshall Spaceflight Center, Huntsville, Alabama to fly their Marshal Airborne Passive Imaging Radiometer attached to a belly pod underneath the Piper Navajo. The goal of this experiment was to provide data for the modeling of precipitating cloud systems in a mid-latitude region. This was a collaborative effort between NASA’s Global Precipitation Measurement Mission Ground Validation Program and the Department of Energy (DOE) Atmospheric Radiation Measurement Climate Research Facility with participants from Brookhaven National Laboratory, Argonne National Laboratory, and McGill University. Coincident ground and flight data were collected in Oklahoma with UTSI flying the Piper Navajo at low altitude below 10,000 feet, DOE flying a Cessna Citation jet at the mid-altitude range above 20,000 feet and NASA flying an ER-2 at a very high altitude of 60,000 feet.

The summer research season is not over for the aviation systems team, during June and July they will be supporting continued NOAA Land Surface Temperature science flights over climate reference network sites in Crossville and Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and possibly in Champagne-Urbana, Illinois later in the summer. This research is a collaborative effort between NOAA’s Atmospheric Turbulence and Diffusion Division, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, NOAA’s National Climate Data Center, Asheville, North Carolina, North Carolina State University’s Cooperative Institute for Climate and Satellites, and UTSI. In the fall, the aviation systems team is planning to be in Sarasota, Florida flying aerial surveys of manatees for the Florida Wildlife Research Institute.

View from the UTSI Piper Navajo airborne science research aircraft, looking eastward along the Gulf of Mexico coastline during an atmospheric mercury air sampling mission.

Pre-dawn taxi for takeoff of the UTSI Piper Navajo and MAPIR Pod, with Aviation Systems Test Pilots Borja Martos and Devon Simmons at the controls and NASA scientists Chip Laymon and Karthik Srinivasan, ready for another 3-hour science flight from Ponca City, Oklahoma.