Sigh. Sometimes life feels heavy.
Even as the holidays approach and we’re all supposed to be in a holiday spirit, supposed to be joyous. Sometimes we’re just not there.
But, as always, NASA gives me the opportunity to look at Earth from the highest perspective. From above, the world appears remote and untouched. There’s nothing but the timeless, immaculate and infinite beauty of our planet.
Together, you and I get to take this opportunity to share thankfulness for our Earth and everything pristine and beautiful about it.
Thank you for reading. I really mean it.
Slow down and relax. Earth is beautiful.
Earth, from the vantage point of space: Serene, breathtaking, magnificent. No matter how crazy busy your day is, no matter the level of stress, or chaos, or distraction, take a moment today—right now, in fact—to step back and feast on the great wonder of our home planet, Earth.
Greenland is one of the few places that’s harder to get to than outer space
I’m going to Greenland. I told my brother, and he replied, “Oh cool, I’m headed to Ireland.” That’s the typical response, as if Greenland were just some place one could book a ticket to, with commercial airports, and hotels, and restaurants and stuff. But … no, Greenland is different. It’s actually not an independent country, for example. (It’s a territory of Denmark.)
The other response I keep getting is that dumb, corny comment about it not being green. So it seems like the only thing we collectively understand about Greenland is that it’s a place to go and it has a hypocritical name.
But that is just so wrong. My husband and I finally got on the same page this morning when he opened the Google Maps satellite view of Kangerlussauq Airport, where I’m scheduled to land. “Oh,” he said. “It’s a barren dirt strip in the middle of nowhere and nothing.”
At last, an acknowledgement of the truth. The only place that’s harder to get to than Greenland is outer space. I know that sounds funny, but I’m not even kidding. (Okay, okay, Antarctica is also hard to get to, along with the Marianas Trench. Ugh.)
I first became aware of how little we know about Greenland when I was creating NASA’s Global Ice Viewer for our climate website. I found shots from Alaskan glaciers that dated all the way back to the late 1800s for the gallery. Gents with top hats and ladies in bustles with Victorian cameras stood on the ice. But Greenland? Photos taken before the 1980s are extremely rare.
And while most people understand that increased atmospheric temperatures have been melting the ice sheet from above, global warming has also been increasing ocean temperatures. And this means the ocean waters surrounding Greenland are also melting the ice sheet from around its edges.
Which is the reason I’m headed up there with NASA’s Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) campaign in the first place: to measure the temperature and salinity of those unknown waters. See, the fresh water that flows into the ocean from ice melt is about 0 degrees and less dense, so it floats right at the sea surface. The North Atlantic Ocean Water is about 3 or 4 degrees, salty and denser, so it sits right below the fresh melt water. And these two waters don’t really mix much. When the 3- or 4-degree North Atlantic Ocean Water gets in contact with Greenland’s ice sheet, it’s warm enough to melt it.
But no one knows the melt rate yet. No one.
Even though Greenland’s melting ice sheet impacts each and every one of us right now. The rate of ice melt will determine how much sea level rise we’re going to get, 5 feet or 10 feet or 20, everywhere, all over planet Earth, not just in Greenland, but at coastlines near you and me.
This is where that whole NASA “exploring the unknown” theme comes in. Next week, the OMG team (including yours truly) will be in Greenland on NASA’s G-III aircraft. We’ll spend five weeks flying around the entire coastline, measuring the salinity and temperature of the coastal waters by dropping 250 Aircraft eXpendable Conductivity Temperature Depth (AXCTD) science probes through a hole in the bottom of the plane. The reason we’re going in September is that’s the warmest time of the year in the ocean, the ice will reach its lowest extent and we’ll be able to measure as much of the coast as possible. The plan is to repeat the same mission for five years to find out what the melt rate is and how much that rate is increasing.
Am I excited? Yes, beyond. Aside from the science preparation, it took months and months of personal prep. I passed a Federal Aviation Administration medical exam, then got trained in First Aid, CPR, AED, hypoxia, disorientation, survival, and hearing conservation, and then had to buy steel-toed shoes, which are required to fly on that NASA plane. Today, I am psyched beyond belief.
Why else would anyone work so hard to do something? Just like the rest of the team, I hope our work really makes a difference.
Cimate change news is intense. Ice caps are melting, the fire season lasts all year long; we have epic storms plus record-breaking floods, droughts and cyclones.
And this year will probably be the Hottest. Year. Ever.
When I interact with the public, I’m bombarded with questions such as “Are we all going to die?” and “How soon will humans go extinct?”
Happy Earth Day, everyone (wipes brow, rolls eyes).
Yet, when I wake up in the morning I'm excited to come to work. I'm energized. I’m amped, really amped. As in, kicking-butt-and-taking-names amped. Why? Because global warming is the greatest challenge of our lives, and challenge is what drives us. Challenge provides us with opportunity, challenge forces us to grow, challenge opens the way for amazing achievement. Challenge is exciting. Without challenge, without struggle, without discomfort, no one would ever advance.
So, when someone gets in my face and is super negative, I try to stay powerful, strong and confident. I tell myself that pressure is okay and I'm going to keep moving no matter what. Because I care about this planet so much that I choose to make a difference.
Yes, carbon dioxide levels are high and increasing rapidly. Yes, future generations will have some extraordinarily difficult challenges to deal with. But denial, avoidance and helplessness aren’t solutions. Can you imagine if we NASA peeps just sat there saying “Oh no, that’s too hard” when faced with huge obstacles? Are you kidding me? Come on! You think it’s easy to build science instruments on satellites and launch them into space? You think it’s easy to measure glaciers melting around the edges of Greenland, or the condition of coral reefs in the Pacific, or plankton blooms across the North Atlantic, or conduct eight field research campaigns in one year?
When the going gets tough—and it does, almost every day—we don’t just stop. We keep working. We know that no successful person got As on every test and that failure and struggle are part of accomplishment. We know that grit and determination will get you everywhere!
In this blog, I write about ocean pollution, sea level rise, climate change and decreasing biodiversity not to scare you, but to empower you, so we can make a difference—you and I, together. Someone reading this blog entry might be the creator of a new breakthrough technology, and then there will be a whole new reality.
So, when you think about the challenge of climate change this Earth Day, consider the possibility of welcoming that challenge. Our shared story could be a story about not giving up, about looking forward to growth, about saying, “Game on.”
Find out more about NASA earth expeditions here.
Join NASA for a #24Seven celebration of Earth Day.
Thank you for caring enough to make a difference and for being powerful in the world.
We overlook Greenland ice loss at our own peril. It’s one of the largest contributors to accelerating sea level rise, and in the U.S. alone, nearly 5 million people live in 2.6 million homes at less than 4 feet above high tide. If you happen to be one of them, you should definitely pay attention to Greenland.
Yes, yes, Greenland is melting. You already knew that…probably. And the giant flux of fresh water pouring out of the second largest ice sheet on the planet isn’t slowing down anytime soon. Greenland’s ice melt is actually accelerating. In the last decade alone, NASA’s twin GRACE satellites measured it gushing 2 trillion tons of ice like a fire hose pouring fresh water into the North Atlantic.
But it’s easier to focus on politics, celebrity gossip, reality TV and cat videos than on Earth’s climate. It seems like everyone’s all “Greenland? Who cares. Whatever. Next.” And that upsets me.
Is it really that easy to pretend the effects of global warming don’t exist?
We overlook Greenland ice loss at our own peril. It’s one of the largest contributors to accelerating sea level rise, and in the U.S. alone, nearly 5 million people live in 2.6 million homes at less than 4 feet above high tide. If you happen to be one of them, you should definitely pay attention to Greenland.
Fortunately for all of us, NASA is paying attention to Greenland in a big way. We’re so concerned about the amount of ice loss that we’ve named a Greenland observing expedition Oceans Melting Greenland, or OMG for short, because that's the most appropriate response to the phenomenon.
This week, OMG heads up north on one of NASA’s G-III modified airplanes to continue a five-year mission that will look closely at how warming ocean water interacts with glaciers surrounding Greenland and melts them. The project began this past year by mapping undersea canyons via a ship equipped with an echo sounder. For this next part of the investigation, a radar instrument attached to the bottom of the G-III, called the Airborne Glacier and Land Ice Surface Topography Interferometer (GLISTIN-A), will be able to measure precisely how much the oceans are eating away at the edges of the ice on a glacier-by-glacier basis.
Instrument integration (a fancy word for attaching instruments to planes and making sure they work and don’t come loose) went down at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center, and Principal Invesigator Dr. Josh Willis, Project Manager Steve Dinardo, Co-Investigator Dr. Ian Fenty and I headed there to check it out.
Glaciers on the edge
As the technicians and engineers tweaked fistfuls of wires, we crawled in, under, through and around the aircraft. Then Dr. Ian Fenty (who helped design the flight plan) and I sat aboard our flying science lab and talked ice loss for a while. “We often find that a glacier that’s been retreating a lot might be in 1,000 feet of water,” he explained. “Whereas the glacier that’s not thinning very much is in water that’s only 100 or 200 feet deep.” That’s because the layers of ocean water around Greenland are in a very unique situation, where you have colder fresh glacier meltwater near the surface over salty ocean water that, due to climate change, has been warming. The water found at 600 feet and below is a relatively warm 4 degrees Celsius compared with the surface water, which is just near freezing at 0 degrees. This means that the “primary suspect” behind the acceleration of Greenland’s melting glaciers is the warming ocean waters that can get right up against the edge and interact with the glacier itself.
As the surface of lower elevation glaciers melts, the water percolates through the ice and forms giant subglacial channels, like a river system under the ice. If the ice running through these narrow rivers breaks off, the friction between the glacier and the substrate gets reduced a bit and literally stretches the ice so the glacier thins out. OMG’s GLISTIN-A radar is going to measure the height of the ice. “If we see a change in elevation from one year to the next, we can know how much ice is being lost and how much the movement of the glacier is speeding up.” Over the next five years OMG plans to go back to Greenland to look for more changes.
As I left the hangar and headed home, I thought about how Greenland is such a weird part of the world and how much I hope our society can put aside its troubles so we can work together to preserve it.
Find out more about Oceans Melting Greenland here.
Thank you for your comments.
Think back to when you were a kid imagining what you were going to be when you grew up. You dreamt that someday, somehow, you would make a difference, a contribution, that your work would be meaningful in the world. If you accomplished this today, how pumped would you be?
"This is going to sound really cheesy and lame," NASA oceanographer Michelle Gierach told me over a Skype call from COP21 in Paris, "but I just get a sense of pride being from the U.S. and being a cool NASA representative and seeing people get excited about what we do. In my day-to-day job, I sometimes forget how much Americans and international people from everywhere love to know what we're doing. It reinvigorates a sense of pride in NASA's work."
Because of the nine-hour time difference, I was barely awake for our call, and through my morning mental blur I wondered for a moment if the glee in her voice had something to do with the fact that I'm a fantastic person and she was thrilled to be speaking with me, or perhaps she was hopped up on chocolate. "They give you chocolate bars every day!" she squealed. "I'm not lying, and it's really good chocolate."
But it was the conference, COP21, the 21st Conference of the Parties of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, that had her all giddy. You see, after so many years of stagnation, resistance and even moving backwards, finally, finally there seems to be movement toward global action against climate change. Yes, it's baby steps, and yes, there's more work to do, "but some movement is significant," she stressed. "I'll take it."
All of us are hungry for something positive. Always. Especially now, since most of the news lately has been such a total bummer. A positive message around climate could be that bump in optimism that we all need right now.
The U.N. COP21 meeting in Paris began on Nov. 30, and by this Friday, Dec. 11, 195 member nations hope to reach a unanimous agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions, hold global warming to 2 degrees Celsius or even lower and provide financial support to developing nations so they can bypass fossil fuels.
It's hard not to feel optimistic. Part of you wants to get your hopes up, but you also don't want to be disappointed, because for so many years there's been so much disappointment. Then there's that part of you that says, This time is different. This time we can do it. Gierach told me that she felt an energy about reaching an outcome at COP21. The overall vibe is "completely optimistic, everybody wants to do something, everybody knows we have to do something. There's a 'let's do it' kind of attitude."
Hyper about the Hyperwall
Last week, we'd spoken about her upcoming trip. She had conflicted feelings due to the recent events in Paris and was concerned about a heightened state of worry and icky vibes. "As a NASA representative," she explained, "my role is to show what NASA is doing with regards to climate change, even though I'm not a delegate or a policy maker. I was so excited to go, and now I'm just not so excited about it anymore." But what a difference one week and a few thousand miles made. From the conference her voice sounded triumphant: "Everybody here wants to show that it's not going to stop what they're trying to do here. It hasn't stopped it at all."
Gierach also told me she was, "super excited that this time around it finally seems people are listening. People see that the oceans are part of a massive system and actually are a significant reason we haven't had a more extreme temperature rise. That message seems to be getting out there." She's been talking about the oceans every day on NASA's hyperwall, an ultra-high resolution visualization that combines nine computer monitors into a giant screen that plays animations in tandem.
On Dec. 3, she joined a panel called "Oceans under pressure" to discuss the following main points of consensus that we can see from satellites:
- The sea surface temperature record shows that the ocean is warming, which clearly impacts Arctic sea ice reduction, the different types of sea ice, and ice sheet reduction.
- Sea level rise is not equal around the globe; for example, the western tropical Pacific has much higher sea level rise than the eastern equatorial Pacific.
And because a significant portion of the conference is dedicated to carbon emissions, she's also talking about the interaction between the ocean and the atmosphere and how carbon dioxide transfers between the two.
Just before we hung up, she added, with power in her voice like a chant or rally call, "Yeah, we're here and we're going to do something. We're not just speaking; we're actually acting and showing that we're acting."
Watch the live stream from the U.S. Center at COP21 in Paris here.
Watch the "Oceans Under Pressure" panel with panelists Jean-Pierre Gattuso, IDDRI/CNRS; Jean-Pierre Gattuso, IDDRI/CNRS; Alexander MacDonald, NOAA; Michelle Gierach, NASA; Cassandra deYoung, FAO here.
Thank you so much for reading,
P.S. Michelle was totally inspired by President Obama's speech and said, "Regardless of what people may think, he is trying to make the world a better place. It made me extremely proud to be part of the United States and have him as our president." Watch the speech here.
NASA’s Global Climate Change website gets a lot of user feedback. Aside from typical random Internet trolls and students posing thinly veiled attempts at getting us to write their term papers, one of the most commonly asked questions goes something like this:
“Hey, NASA, are you really sure people are causing climate change? Have you double-checked?” or “Hey, NASA, I have an idea. Maybe climate change is caused by x, y, z and it’s not really caused by humans. You should look into this.”
The short answer to this type of question is “Yes, we’ve double-, triple-, quadruple-checked. It’s science! We check and recheck a gazillion times. We’ve looked into everything you could possibly imagine and more. Before we commit to what we say, we have a strong desire to make sure it’s actually true.”
One example of how careful we have to be is when we’re analyzing the carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere from space.
OCO-2 is the NASA mission designed to be sensitive enough to detect a single part of carbon dioxide per million parts of atmosphere (ppm). The way it works is super complicated. And because carbon dioxide is the most important human contribution to climate change (the biggest issue of our time) and expectations of science results were set very high, we have to be super-duper certain our measurements are correct.
The sensitivity makes it very challenging.
The instruments on OCO-2 not only measure the absolute amount of carbon dioxide at a location, but they also look for very small gradients in the distribution of CO2, the difference in the distribution of carbon dioxide between one location and another as a function of time. For example, “a gradient on and off a city is like 2 parts per million,” explained Mike Gunson, project scientist for the mission. "You see 2 parts per million from any city of modest size on up. You’re looking at the difference between 399.5 and 401.5 parts per million. So you have to be careful. Nobody’s done this over New York City, Mumbai, Beijing or Shanghai, where it could be wildly different.”
Scientists spend their lives working to get reliable data. Science is hard; it’s not a walk in the park. Everything doesn't just land in your lap. Sometimes it’s a miracle to get any data at all. People don’t often talk about the challenges of doing science, but if you could uncover the history of any project, you would probably find loads of problems, issues and challenges that come up.
After most NASA satellite launches, the instruments typically go through a validation phase, a two- or three-month period when engineers and project managers check, double-check and recheck the data coming in from the satellite to assess its quality and make sure it’s absolutely accurate before it’s released to the scientific community. But with OCO-2, “there is no validation phase,” Gunson told me, “because the measurements have such sensitivity. You’re always validating. Constant validation is an integral part of ensuring the integrity of the dataset.”
For OCO-2 to make an observation, the sky has to be clear, without clouds. Too much wind will move the carbon dioxide, so you also need quiet meteorological conditions. Then, before we can make an inference, we must assess the quality of data, which involves exceptionally large computing capacity.” Because there is so much data coming in, you end up using all sorts of analysis techniques, including machine learning, to analyze the quality of the data. OCO-2 launched in July 2014, and since this past September the data have been released to the broader science community to sink their teeth into. This means, Gunson said, “after a year of alligator-wrestling, all of a sudden we can walk it on a leash.”
Learn more about NASA’s efforts to better understand the carbon and climate challenge.
I look forward to your comments.
It would be so easy to sit around all day complaining about climate change and global warming. I mean, hey, we've got so many storms that my colleague who updates "Latest Events" on our Eyes on the Earth web app rolls her eyes as if to say "I can't even." Global warming, drought, El Niño, big hurricanes: Planet Earth is like, "You want a piece of me?" And even as the challenge of climate change and global warming hits us in the face like wave after wave of storm surge, I ask myself: Are they challenges or are they opportunities? Or both?
Some thrive on transforming things that appear negative. And perhaps nothing appears more negative than our garbage. It's ... garbage, refuse, trash, rubbish, junk – the waste products of our lives, the stuff we determine useless. Wouldn't it be amazing if it were possible to take that discarded dreck and turn it into something that we really, really want and need?
Well, there is.
And the Solid Waste Authority of Palm Beach County, Florida has taken the lead. They have the most advanced and cleanest waste-to-energy power plant in North America. They take trash directly from garbage trucks and load it into "the Pit,"" which is designed to handle up to seven days of waste. Grapples that look like giant claws feed the waste into one of three boilers. There, it's burned to generate steam, which drives a turbine generator to produce electricity. A suite of pollution control technologies ensures extremely low air emissions.
The plant can process 3,000 tons of trash every day and convert it into enough electricity to power more than 40,000 homes and businesses. Yeah.
There are a bunch of reasons why waste-to-energy power plants benefit the environment:- First, the Renewable Energy Facilities at the Solid Waste Authority reduce greenhouse gas emissions by producing electricity that otherwise would have been generated by burning fossil fuels.
- The system also decreases the volume of waste that goes to the landfill, thereby limiting methane generation, which is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.
- The facility has recycled nearly 2 million tons of paper, plastic, aluminum and glass and recovers metals, such as iron and aluminum, from materials discarded by the residents and businesses. Manufacturing new products from recycled materials consumes less energy and significantly reduces greenhouse gas generation compared to mining and metal production from raw materials.
- The Solid Waste Authority also collects gases generated by the landfill to effectively prevent emissions into the atmosphere. These gases are harnessed to produce energy, which helps reduce fossil fuel reliance.
Tom Henderson, project manager at Arcadis, managed the development of this 7- to 8-year project, because he knew how to put the team of talented people together and understood the political and engineering aspects of getting the plant built. During our phone conversation, he told me "the primary purpose of these facilities is to eliminate the need for a landfill."
Landfills are forever
I told him I didn't think most of this blog's readers had ever been to a landfill, so I asked him to describe what it's like to stand next to one.
"The first thing you notice is that these facilities are huge," he told me. "It's not like there's a couple of bags of trash brought there every day. There's tens of thousands of tons, hundreds and hundreds of truckloads, so the first thing you're impressed with is how much trash there is. It's just this huge volume of material." Throwing so much stuff away is one of the major greenhouse gas and climate change contributors.
Yikes. I wondered if you could identify individual things or if it looked more like a mush pit. "You see food waste, a lot of paper and plastic, mattresses. The smell is pretty bad," he told me. "Just about anything you could imagine in your home or office today is going to end up at a place like that in most places in this country."
I looked around my room at my night table with a lamp on it, a moisturizer, a phone cable, some papers. I thought about all the Halloween decorations I'd walked past this morning.
All of it, all of it, all of it, ends up in a landfill
We went on to discuss how, as a society, we've become very selfish. People don't want to think about this big mound of trash. We want what we want and we don't care what happens to it after the trash truck drives off. Yup, that is us.
Well, some people care; you might even be one of them. But judging by the way our society disposes its trash, its waste products, it's obvious we don't care enough to stop what we've been doing.
"Landfills are very inexpensive to build," said Henderson, "but you have to maintain them forever." (He emphasized the word "ever" as if to extend the timeline with the tone of his voice.) "A hundred years from now, the liner system will have failed and we have to go back and spend money to clean it." As he spoke, I thought about the parallel to climate change: The maintenance cost is not included in the initial cost of the landfill, just as the cost of adaptation is not included in the price of burning fossil fuels.
Henderson explained how easy it is to "build landfills if nobody is there to complain about it." But in Palm Beach County, Florida, the County Commission decided to deal with their own problem, rather than exporting it like a lot of other large cities. When people are involved in their community, they have more control over what happens. "We're creating this problem. We should deal with it ourselves." Waste-to-energy plants are usually right inside the community. They decided that it was not okay to put the garbage in a truck and drive it hundreds and hundreds of miles "away." And in fact, at their waste-to-energy facility, they have a sign that says, "This is where 'away' is."
On Planet Earth, there is no "away." "Away" is here.
And thank you so much for reading.
There are days when you just want to crawl under your desk and hide in the fetal position. I felt like that this morning. And indeed, I may feel this way for the rest of the week – or longer. Everywhere I turn, some giant challenge smacks me in the gut (ahem, global warming) and I'm supposed to bounce with glee like "NASA, NASA, rah rah roo!" all day long.
I'm sure you know what I mean. This weekend I walked past a busy café and saw single-use plastic trash spilling everywhere. You can see this in café after café, day after day, everywhere. It's a symptom of people paying lip service to caring for the environment, but being absolutely paralyzed. If the most we ask of ourselves is to buy more and more stuff and carry it a whole 2 feet to a trash bin, then how in the world are we going to tackle the big things?
The energy it takes to make honest, interesting and informative content for this climate website, the energy it takes to not let the daily deluge of Internet trolls and nasty comments get to me, all while facing the reality of GLOBAL WARMING, is exhausting.
I try to make a difference, to keep encouraging myself, to lift myself out of despair. We're supposed to keep our noses to the do-something-meaningful-with-your-life grindstone and keep chugging endlessly uphill, just like The Little Engine That Could, while repeating some mindless positive slogans of encouragement to keep our heads up.
I try to find a way to cope with these enormous problems without turning away, without downing a pint of ice cream, without watching the stupidest reality TV show I can find. For to be so disconnected from the world as to be capable of polluting it, is to be disconnected from life. And connection is the one thing I refuse to let go of.
True, maybe you really should crawl under your desk and your little engine should pull over to the side of the road for a break. But you're here, just like I am, pushing through because it's somehow better to stay connected even if it hurts.
I've sat in countless meetings here at NASA, where scientists and engineers fight to create complex flying machines that observe particles as tiny as a molecule from miles away, or hand build a one-of-a-kind experimental instrument from scratch, out of nothing but innovation and dreams. We thrive on the incomprehensibly difficult. We welcome problems, challenges, roadblocks, obstacles that are impossibly, mind-bogglingly large. That's why I'm here: To feed on frustration, difficulty and hindrance until I grow stronger and more ferocious.
I look forward to your comments.
Those of you who follow this blog know that, on top of launching satellites into space, NASA has a suite of Earth-observing instruments, a robust airborne program of instruments mounted on planes, and science ships.
Final frontier? I don't think so. Our catch phrase should be more like "Frontiers are us." We're all over the place.
Recently, Chris Mertens, a NASA scientist interested in galactic cosmic rays, shepherded a NASA balloon all the way to the top of Earth's atmosphere. The balloon, which stood a couple hundred feet tall and held 11 million cubic feet of helium, had a flight train attached to it with a payload of four science instruments and a parachute. He watched it lift off from NASA's Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, and float away on a 24-hour research journey. "It was pretty surreal seeing it drift vertically away," he told me. "The apparatus looked big in the flight facility but looked so small as it was going up. It floated so gracefully, effortlessly."
Up, up and away
As the balloon lifted off, chief engineer Amanda Cutright could hear two sets of cheers, one at the location and a second over the delay at NASA's Langley Research Center where members of the team were watching a broadcast of the event. But she was "still holding her breath," waiting for the data to come in.
Mertens and Cutright, along with project manager Kevin Daugherty and the rest of the Radiation Dosimetry Experiment (RaD-X) team, had spent the past few weeks prepping the balloon and payload in the deserts of New Mexico and had been anxiously awaiting its launch. (Dosimetry is the science of determining radiation dosages received by the human body.) Daugherty told me they'd been waiting for the winds to stagnate in the upper atmosphere so they could fly over the southeastern U.S. for 24 hours without going into the populated areas of Mexico or Los Angeles.
Up in the air
The project actually began years ago when Mertens heard a pilot say, "I'm exposed to radiation and I don't know how much." See, someone on a one-way plane trip from Chicago to Germany on a normal day is exposed to approximately one chest X-ray's worth of radiation. Because commercial airline pilots and aircrew fly so frequently, they are actually radiation workers. So, with his background in cosmic radiation and space weather physics, Mertens knew he could develop a model to predict the radiation levels in Earth's upper atmosphere and answer that question. With this balloon flight, the RaD-X team expects to learn more about the amount of radiation flight crews receive on a daily, monthly or yearly basis and throughout their careers.
Up, up, up, up
About two hours after launch, the balloon reached the middle of the stratosphere, about 110-120 thousand feet up, right on the edge of space. That's about three times as high as commercial airplanes normally fly. From on-board cameras, "we could see the curvature of the Earth and watch the clouds recede," said Cutright. The team wanted to look at the incoming galactic cosmic rays and radiation from the sun above the region where the particles interact with the atmosphere and break up into smaller particles. "Earth's radiation environment is complex," Mertens explained. "Our magnetic field has a dynamic response to the solar wind and varies with latitude. At the polar regions, radiation exposure is maximum because the magnetic field lines are vertical. This means that during a solar storm, the incoming charged particles at the polar cap are parallel to the magnetic field lines, so there's no deflection by the magnetic field."
Yes, Earth's magnetic field is seriously rad.
Just past sunset, they purposely let enough helium out of the balloon to lower it to the 70-89 thousand foot range and have it float there overnight. All four dosimetry instruments collected data at both altitudes to feed into NAIRAS, an analytical model that simulates tissue and how radiation impacts it.
For the rest of the flight, the RaD-X team watched visuals from the onboard cameras, gathered near real-time data on their computers and tracked the balloon flight path from the control room.
"At one point late at night," said Cutright, "we were watching the Earth and we could see the moon. We could see a lightning storm over Oklahoma, all the way from the edge of Texas and New Mexico."
After sunrise, the team watched the parachute deploy so the payload could descend safely; from the camera view, they watched the Earth getting bigger and bigger. The payload was cut from the balloon and a large hole ripped on the side of the balloon so it could fall on its own off to the side. The balloon landed in a rancher's field and the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility out of NASA Wallops recovered it.
Thank you for reading and for your comments.
P.S. 100 low-cost Cubes in Space experiments from 100 classrooms across the country were also on the flight. Some of their experiments included kernels of popcorn to see if they pop at altitude and seeds and electronics to find out how radiation affects them. Now that you know NASA helped students send kernels of popcorn to the edge of space, aren't you dying to find out if they popped or not? I am. I'll try my best to find out and post it here.