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Student scientists do fieldwork from high above California

A new collaboration between NASA and the University of North Dakota lets them take to the air in a DC-8 to get readings on air pollution, ocean toxin dangers and crops' water loss.

July 25, 2009|Shara Yurkiewicz

Just 1,000 feet above the ground, people, cars and trees were still visible from the small plane. The air was turbulent here, shaking the passengers as they took their careful measurements.

"Open," called a student operating a probe that protruded outside the window. The 2-liter canister attached to the probe filled with air, and another student wrote down where the sample was taken.

During the six-hour flight up and down the California coast, the students filled 168 canisters at altitudes ranging from 1,000 to 35,000 feet. They collected images from land and sea.

The goals of the flight: to learn more about air pollution above the Central Valley, toxin dangers in the sea, and water loss from crops on land.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, July 28, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 2 inches; 66 words Type of Material: Correction
Airborne science program: An article in Saturday's Section A about a NASA-run science program incorrectly referred to a DC-8 airplane as "small." It exceeds the Federal Aviation Administration's upper limit of 12,500 pounds for small aircraft. Also, the caption for a photo with the article incorrectly identified the student on the right as Steven Walsh. The student is Andrew Hart of the University of New Hampshire.

On the flight Wednesday from NASA's Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, the crew of 47 -- undergraduate and graduate students, middle and high school teachers, and professional scientists -- boarded the NASA-owned DC-8 "flying laboratory" to gather environmental data. It was part of the student airborne research program, a new six-week collaboration between NASA and the University of North Dakota.

The students, with backgrounds in the physical, chemical and biological sciences and engineering, came from universities across the country. At UC Irvine, they learned about airborne science and the instruments they would be using. In Palmdale, they helped plan the research mission.

What they have gathered for analysis and possible publication will be used by other researchers studying environmental science.

"There's such a wealth of data here to be shared. The science community is generally protective of its data, but here it is different," said Melissa Yang, who is wrapping up her doctorate in atmospheric chemistry at UCI and will work in airborne science at NASA in Virginia in September.

Designed to gather environmental data, the plane can hold as many as 25 instruments, though on Wednesday it carried just two: a multi-spectral remote sensing imager to study land and water surfaces, and a whole-air sampler to gather air specimens. (A second flight took place Friday.)

First the plane zigzagged over the Central Valley to collect air samples over large dairy operations.

A year ago, Donald Blake, a UCI professor of chemistry in charge of the air-collecting portion of the mission, found surprisingly strong ethanol emissions over the area.

The team planned to check that out further, and to test for other chemicals.

Ethanol can contribute to production of the air pollutant ozone.

The plane next ascended to 13,000 feet, and the remote-sensing imager looked at the amount of water that leaves were losing in almond groves and cotton fields. The findings could help farmers know when and how much to water their crops.

Satellites obtain similar data, but less frequently and at lower resolution.

"Nobody's figured out a cheap enough way to provide data when a farmer needs it affordably," said Susan Ustin, program collaborator and UC Davis professor of environmental and resource sciences.

The small plane then headed west, toward Monterey Bay, to try to detect blooms of algae on the water's surface.

The microbes composing these blooms make daily trips to the water surface, where they produce neurotoxins that are dangerous to fish and humans.

From 35,000 feet up, the remote imager measured 50 bands of reflective sunlight and thermal energy.

The students knew that algal blooms cause a specific pattern of energy to be absorbed and reflected -- allowing the students to determine the blooms' location.

The team was at the mercy of clouds, which often hung over the bay, making it impossible to image the water below.

Wednesday's flight was delayed for several hours to give the clouds a chance to dissipate.

During the next few weeks, the students will analyze and present their findings at UCI. This is the first year for the program, and NASA hopes to repeat it annually, said Shaun Smith, NASA education flight projects specialist.

"We want to encourage students to pursue careers in science and technology," said faculty participant Henry Fuelberg, a professor of meteorology at Florida State University. "We also want to bring in young people for new ideas. We hope to inspire another generation of students."



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