The Final Frontier... Here on EarthEverybody knows NASA. But they are better known for their space exploration work than for all of the awesome scientific work they do to better understand our own planet. One such program is the Airborne Tropical Tropopause Experiment (ATTREX). They will use a modified Global Hawk unmanned aircraft (pictured above) to fly up to 65,000 feet above the tropical Pacific ocean and study "unexplored regions of the upper atmosphere for answers to how a warming climate is changing Earth." The drone will take off from and be operated by NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California and make 30-hour flights.
Water vapor and ozone in the stratosphere can have a large impact on Earth's climate. The processes that drive the rise and fall of these compounds, especially water vapor, are not well understood. This limits scientists' ability to predict how these changes will influence global climate in the future. ATTREX will study moisture and chemical composition in the upper regions of the troposphere, the lowest layer of Earth's atmosphere. The tropopause layer between the troposphere and stratosphere, 8 miles to 11 miles above Earth's surface, is the point where water vapor, ozone and other gases enter the stratosphere. (source)
Because even small changes in stratospheric humidity can have significant climate impacts, it would be very useful to better understand the processes at play.
“The ATTREX payload will provide unprecedented measurements of the tropical tropopause layer,” said Eric Jensen, ATTREX principal investigator at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. “This is our first opportunity to sample the tropopause region during winter in the Northern Hemisphere when the region is coldest and extremely dry air enters the stratosphere.”
The diagram above shows the special instruments that will be carried by the ATTREX Global Hawk. They include "remote sensors for measuring clouds, trace gases and temperatures above and below the aircraft, as well as instruments to measure water vapor, cloud properties, meteorological conditions, radiation fields and numerous trace gases around the aircraft." All of these have to be able to handle temperatures as cold as minus 115 degrees Fahrenheit to survive the flight.
"ATTREX will perform a series of campaigns using NASA’s long-range Global Hawk unmanned aircraft system to study cloud formations in the tropical tropopause. Shown above is a photo of cloud formations taken in 2010 as the Global Hawk flew over the North Pacific Ocean. "
Six science flights are planned between Jan. 16 and March 15. The ATTREX team also is planning remote deployments to Guam and Australia in 2014.