Sky High: NASA’s Airborne Datasets

Data from aircraft and other platforms help validate satellite sensors and advance science and computer modeling.
A chase plane captured this photo of NASA Global Hawk 872 on September 19, 2014, after the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) gathered data from a weakening Tropical Storm Edouard over the North Atlantic Ocean as part of NASA’s HS3 mission. Credit: NASA.

The summer of 2013, NASA atmospheric scientist Dr. Stephanie Wingo worked as a weather forecaster helping guide storm-hunting aircraft into hurricanes and other tropical tempests as they threatened the East Coast of the United States.

“I was one of several people watching in real time the location of the science platforms and assisting in any needed adjustments in flight course to better sample key areas of a storm or avoid potential hazards,” said Wingo.

Wingo’s work was part of the Hurricane and Severe Storm Sentinel (HS3) mission. HS3 was a 2012 to 2014 campaign aimed at using uncrewed aerial systems to make observations to explore the physical processes controlling hurricane intensity change and the roles environmental conditions and internal storm structures play in the strengthening of storms. 

Data from HS3 led to a better understanding of the thermodynamic structure of hurricanes, a detailed record of the rapid intensification of 2014’s Hurricane Edouard, and improvements in how to safely send high-altitude uncrewed aircraft into the dangerous parts of a storm.

Today, Wingo is even more deeply immersed in airborne data as the head of NASA’s Airborne Data Management Group (ADMG), which is part of NASA’s Interagency Implementation and Advanced Concepts Team (IMPACT) under NASA’s Earth Science Data Systems (ESDS) Program. Wingo and ADMG are charged with improving the discoverability of and access to data from HS3 and the agency’s other airborne and field research programs.

Data In the Air

Airborne data are collected by instruments and sensors carried by aircraft, drones, balloons, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and other platforms.

“An example is the Global Hawk drone we used during the HS3 campaign,” said Wingo. “The Global Hawk can fly up to 65,000 feet and carries instruments such as the Cloud Physics Lidar.”

Airborne data have a number of important uses:

  • Instrument Development: Many sensors and instruments installed on satellites are developed and tested aboard aircraft before they are sent into space. The data from these tests provide an efficient, cost-effective way to verify or improve the design of instruments before they’re put to work in orbit.
  • Satellite Calibration and Validation: The function of satellite sensors in space needs to be verified before they can officially begin their science missions. To do so, engineers compare the preliminary satellite sensor data with validated suborbital data they know is accurate to determine how well the spacecraft’s instruments are working.
  • Scientific Investigations: Many suborbital data are collected as part of scientific studies exploring topics ranging from atmospheric chemistry to environmental ecology. The data provide direct evidence for new scientific results and discoveries published in journals and other sources.
  • Modeling: Data from airborne scientific investigations and other projects are used in the development of models for weather forecasting, climate science predictions, and more.

“The airborne data also provide a really nice bridge between what we can see from the ground and from satellites,” said Wingo. “Stationary, ground-based radars and satellites have their strengths, but they also have their weaknesses, such as not being very nimble. If we’re studying precipitation and cloud processes, we can fly a plane into a storm, precisely gather in situ data, and use that information to complement or explain what we’re seeing from the ground or space.”

CASEI Can Help You Find It

Airborne and other suborbital data are stored across the archives of NASA’s Distributed Active Archive Centers (DAACs) and can be discovered using Earthdata Search. To make finding these data even easier, ADMG developed the Catalog of Archived Suborbital Earth Science Investigations (CASEI). CASEI extends the basic functions of Earthdata Search and adds a host of contextual information that researchers may find useful in locating the suborbital datasets they need. The system also includes information from ocean and land-based field campaigns, such as the Export Processes in the Ocean from Remote Sensing (EXPORTS) ocean carbon cycle research campaigns.

“The DAACs have a great support structure in place for each of their primary user communities. But if a researcher is looking at something cross-disciplinary, such as aerosols, clouds, convection, chemistry, and how all of those things interact, they’ll have to understand how to navigate different DAACs to find what they need,” said Wingo. “When you search CASEI, it will show you the results from all of the DAACs and also provide contextual information, such as the science objectives that motivated a field campaign or the particular events that were noted as being critical time periods for key observations of phenomena or physical process.”

ADMG to the Rescue

Wingo estimates that CASEI currently lists half of the known NASA airborne datasets in its system—and that amount grows every day. An important contributor to that growth is a nascent data rescue program ADMG started.

NASA began collecting airborne data long before the DAACs and CASEI existed. For more than 50 years, researchers have been storing and stewarding data for their own projects in whatever ways seemed best at the time. This means there are many cases where data are stored outside of the DAACs on computer disks, camera film negatives, or even as paper files in dusty storage cabinets. ADMG is trying to find these datasets and digitize and validate them for proper data stewardship and inclusion in CASEI.

“I recently got an email from a NASA researcher who has some data that were used in GPS receiver calibrations from the 1980s that, at the time, nobody wanted to use again,” said Wingo. “So, he downloaded the data onto CD-ROMs and stores them on the bookshelf in his office. These data were critical in determining how one particular wind retrieval method was calibrated, and it’s great that they are in a digital form that we can more easily archive today.”

Wingo says the rescued data not only have historical value, they also underpin a lot of science being conducted today. Additionally, many datasets contain measurements of phenomena and processes that couldn’t be explained at the time but could be understood today through the use of modern concepts and technologies.

The Sky's the Limit

Whether it’s historical data or measurements to test equipment for future satellites, NASA’s airborne datasets provide information essential for understanding our planet. These data will be even easier to find when CASEI has its full public release in the summer of 2023. This release will include more datasets and a view of data products that can be filtered, browsed, or searched in a variety of ways, including using a particular kind of variable or a set geospatial area. From that point on, the sky is the limit for researchers of airborne data.

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