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UT Space Institute Flies New Airborne Science Sensor Pod

UTSI Piper Navajo research aircraft in flight during testing of new airborne science sensor pod.

The University of Tennessee Space Institute Aviation Systems Program has recently completed flight testing of a new sensor pod on their Piper Navajo twin engine research aircraft. The aircraft belly-mounted sensor pod provides a new and exciting capability for UTSI to conduct Airborne Science flight research, including environmental and climate science. The tests were flown from the Tullahoma Regional Airport, where the UTSI Aviation Systems Flight Research Group is based.

The UTSI Aviation Systems Program performed all facets of the design and development of the new sensor pod, including aerodynamic and structural design, engineering analyses, fabrication, ground testing, and flight qualification. The flight test program verified the structural integrity and safety aspects of flying with the large pod attached to the belly of the aircraft. These tests included performance, flying qualities, and systems testing of the pod and the associated instrumentation and data systems.

The first airborne science missions using the new UTSI sensor pod will be for the Earth Sciences Office of the NASA Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. UTSI will fly the NASA Marshall Airborne Polarimetric Imaging Radiometer or “MAPIR” sensor, a large, downward looking sensor that can precisely measure surface temperature over land or water. The first application of this airborne measurement technology will be to obtain surface temperature maps of the lakes and rivers that supply cooling water to nuclear power plants in Tennessee and Alabama. Understanding the cooling water temperatures is critical to the efficient operation of these plants and in assessing their environmental impact.

New airborne science sensor pod mounted underneath UTSI Piper Navajo research aircraft.

Close-up view of UTSI airborne science sensor pod, ready for NASA Earth Sciences missions.

UTSI has a growing program focused on airborne, atmospheric, and environmental science that will utilize several of the Aviation Systems research aircraft. In addition to the NASA partnership, UTSI has teamed with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to conduct significant airborne science research over the next several years.
In one NOAA project this year, UTSI will be working with the NOAA Atmospheric Turbulence and Diffusion Division in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, whose research is focused on air quality, climate, and the airborne transport and dispersion of pollutants and other airborne gases. UTSI will be performing airborne measurements of incident and reflected solar radiation around various NOAA research tower sites, including those in NOAA’s Climate Reference Network in Tennessee. The objective of these tests is to characterize the spatial variability of land-use and to provide an intermediate linkage between the point measurements of reflected solar radiation provided by the research towers and those measured over much greater areas by NOAA. In addition, UTSI plans to erect several atmospheric science ground stations near the Space Institute that will contribute data to the NOAA science network for many years to come.
In another NOAA project, UTSI is providing flight research support for a team of scientists from the Florida State University, Georgia Tech University, the University of Miami and the NOAA Air Resources Laboratory in Silver Spring, Maryland. In this multi-year project, UTSI will use their research aircraft to conduct airborne sensing of atmospheric mercury over the NOAA mercury monitoring site in Grand Bay, Mississippi and other locations. These airborne measurements will help scientists better understand the transport and dispersion of atmospheric mercury in the air and its deposition into the land and water.