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June 27, 2005

UCSC takes over operation of NASA Ames Airborne Sensor Facility


By Françoise Chanut

UCSC has taken over the operation of NASA's Airborne Sensor Facility, a major program for observation and monitoring of Earth's environment based at NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field.


Airborne sensors can provide images such as this color infrared photo of San Francisco from 65,000 feet.
Photo: NASA

NASA's ER-2 aircraft carries a variety of sensors used for observation and monitoring of Earth's environment.
Photo: NASA

The transfer of management strengthens the links between NASA and UCSC and will enhance the campus's remote sensing capability and research, said Eli Silver, a professor of Earth sciences at UCSC who was named principal investigator of the facility in April.

UCSC has a close collaborative relationship with NASA Ames, including management of the University Affiliated Research Center (UARC), a $330 million contract between UC and NASA for a broad range of mission-oriented research. The UARC will now oversee the activities and program of the Airborne Sensor Facility. Under the current agreement, NASA will provide funding to UCSC through the UARC at the rate of $3 million per year to cover operation costs, salaries for the current staff of 17, and stipends for one or two graduate students, Silver said.

"The Airborne Sensor Facility brings an excellent new direction to the UCSC remote sensing program," said Silver, who also directs UCSC's Center for Remote Sensing.

Researchers in the Center for Remote Sensing, part of the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics at UCSC, use remote imaging tools to study Earth's surface, oceans, and atmosphere. Their investigations address many diverse topics, including coral reefs, glaciers, volcanoes, air pollution, ocean currents, and land-use planning. The center includes researchers in the Departments of Earth Sciences, Ocean Sciences, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Electrical Engineering, and Computer Engineering.

Placing the NASA Airborne Sensor Facility under UCSC's responsibility will give researchers in the Center for Remote Sensing easier access to data collected by the facility, Silver said. UCSC researchers will also have more direct input into the design of new sensors and aircraft, he said.

The Airborne Sensor Facility develops and maintains a variety of aircraft and sensor systems for remote sensing research. The facility supports NASA programs as well as researchers at universities and government agencies, such as the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Staff scientists at the facility build new sensing devices, maintain existing systems, and provide expertise in mission planning and data processing. Under UCSC management, the facility will continue to provide these services to researchers at NASA and other agencies and institutions.

The sensors--including spectroradiometers and other digital imaging devices--are placed on a variety of NASA aircraft that fly at altitudes between a few hundred feet and 13 miles. These aircraft include both piloted airplanes and unmanned aerial vehicles. For NASA, the purpose of these flights is often to help interpret or calibrate the data collected by satellites that observe the Earth from space, orbiting at altitudes of around 500 miles.

But airborne sensors are also useful in their own right, Silver said. Because they fly closer to the ground than satellites, they can gather more detailed data at higher resolutions. One pixel of information from an airborne sensor covers an area on a scale of inches to yards, rather than miles. In addition, researchers have more control over the area being surveyed, the resolution at which they gather data, and the dates and times of the surveys.

Silver said he wants to develop remote sensing technology that will eventually help researchers detect life in extreme environments, including Mars. His team currently analyzes the spectral properties of fossil formations and living bacterial communities associated with coldwater seeps and volcanic geothermal areas on Earth. The sensors they have developed can record over a hundred separate wavelengths of light, which makes it possible to recognize the distinctive spectral signatures of a large variety of minerals and bacteria.

With the help of the Airborne Sensor Facility, Silver and his colleagues can test their sensors' ability to pick up fossil or bacterial signatures from different altitudes. Silver also plans to use airborne sensors to compare the spectra of life-bearing and lifeless parts of the Atacama Desert in Chile, considered the most arid place on Earth and a model for the harsh conditions of the Martian surface.

Access to the Airborne Sensor Facility's staff and its expertise in data analysis will be a great help to UCSC researchers, said Raphael Kudela, an associate professor of ocean sciences. Kudela's lab uses remote sensing of ocean waters to monitor blooms of algae along the California coast. Two years ago, he and his colleagues watched the evolution of a "red tide"--a bloom containing both benign and harmful toxin-producing algae--using NASA airborne sensors that could help distinguish between toxic and nontoxic microscopic algae.

"The facility has two or three of the best sensors in the United States for our applications," Kudela said. But he added that interpreting the data these sensors collect requires specialized expertise that only the Airborne Sensor Facility can provide.

Donald Potts, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology who specializes in reefs and coastal areas, said he looks forward to developing new kinds of sensors with the help of the Airborne Sensor Facility. His studies would benefit from sensors with high sensitivity at the blue end of the light spectrum, rather than the red and infrared wavelengths that most sensors currently emphasize, he said. In addition, technical advances in miniaturization could reduce operating costs.

"Smaller sensors don't generate as much heat and don't need to be cooled in flight with liquid nitrogen. They can be placed on smaller aircraft that are cheaper to operate, including eventually unmanned planes," Potts said.

NASA is using several unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that UCSC researchers could adapt to their scientific remote sensing needs with the help of the Airborne Sensor Facility staff, Silver said. The smallest UAVs are approximately the size of a large remote-controlled model airplane (100 pounds, 12-foot wingspan) and their itinerary can be controlled by radio or preprogrammed before a flight. Their operation does not require flight crews or landing strips and would be practical in developing countries with minimal infrastructure, Potts said. Some UAVs can fly for 24 hours at a time, which would make it possible to follow a complete tidal cycle, Kudela noted. Another advantage of UAVs is that they can be sent to explore very inhospitable environments.

"In the future, we could use unmanned vehicles to study volcanoes," Silver said.

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