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Engineers Make Headway Over Antarctica

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Professor Chris Allen watches a visual display of data being collected by the MCoRDS radar system developed at the National Science Foundation Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets headquartered at the University of Kansas. Success can happen just about anywhere.

Today’s high-altitude flight took NASA’s Operation Ice Bridge researchers over the Pine Island region (75° 25’ S and 98° 25’ W and surrounding area) of Antarctica.
 
“We’re really pumped. We’re getting some really good data,” Professor Chris Allen says about midway through the 11-hour flight. The University of Kansas electrical engineering professor and four KU graduate students are operating three different radars developed at KU through the NSF Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets.
 
“A while back, we were over the ice shelf, and it was very distinct.” Now, as the plane progresses over the land formation, the vibrant multicolored display offers less clear information. But the raw data is still being captured. “That’s where the signal processing comes in,” Allen says. The display offers a cactus-like spectrum of color, with spikes protruding from separate layers of color. The uninitiated eye can clearly see a “surface” in the image. That would be the top of the ice layer, Allen explains. The more trained eye knows that where the yellow, aqua and blue colors intermingle is where the real action lies and more sophisticated methods will be needed to coax meaning from the mountains of raw data.
 
Icebergs with about 100 feet of ice above the surface begin the trek out to sea near Pine Island in Antarctica. Already the CReSIS team is eliciting oohs and ahhs from other science team members through data they’ve collected with the MCoRDS radar in the mission’s two previous flights. In a recent evening briefing, an image being displayed for all to see appeared to show that in one inland area of Antarctica the ice sheet is several kilometers thick and is nestled in a channel of bedrock that appears to be well below sea level.
 
Five hours after the flight started, the plane has gone through several passes and still has many more to go.  The proscribed flight path — called “mowing the lawn” — includes 11 parallel lines and a couple perpendicular ones. Each parallel path is about five miles apart, however the flight crew skips the adjacent path in order to comfortably make the turn. A couple “teardrop turns” — wider turns that loop back nearly 360 degrees to a narrower path — have been thrown in for good measure to ensure the science and engineering teams are on the exact positions they need.  It also helps break the monotony of flying over endless tracks of white.
 
Realtime displays show where the NASA DC-8 is as it flies a perpendicular route on this particular high-altitude mission. Even after the flight crew has maneuvered the DC-8 through its perpendicular labyrinth and is making the long stretch home across the Antarctic Ocean, the KU team will still be hard at work crunching numbers and distilling hard truths from the icebergs of raw data.  With significant computing power aboard the plane, the team has made it a goal try to deliver detailed information about ice sheet thickness and more by the time the plane lands in Punta Arenas.


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