NASA uses passenger airline to collect environmental data

(ORDO NEWS) — Since mid-September 2022, NASA-sponsored instruments have been flying commercial aircraft and collecting environmental data in New Zealand.

The Air New Zealand collaboration is the first known data collection partnership between a passenger airline and a NASA Earth exploration mission.

The new program is part of the NASA Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) mission, which is a constellation of eight small satellites that collect data on the intensity and direction of storms and hurricanes.

Flying in low Earth orbit over the tropics, CYGNSS satellites were developed to measure wind speed over the ocean.

Since launching satellites in 2016, scientists have discovered that CYGNSS technology can also take valuable measurements of wetlands, floods, and soil moisture.

This is where the partnership of Air New Zealand was needed. Installing GPS radar receivers on commercial aircraft offers a new way to observe features of wetlands and rivers that are often hidden from view in visible light images by dense vegetation.

“The receiver on the aircraft was supposed to be the next version of the receiver on CYGNSS,” said Chris Roof, CYGNSS Principal Investigator. “This is a great opportunity to start using new technology and test it.”

The receivers automatically turn on and off as the New Zealand Airlines Q300 takes off and lands. After landing, the receivers transmit the observational data to a server at the University of Auckland.

When an aircraft crosses New Zealand, some of its flight paths intersect with those of the CYGNSS satellites. These coincidences will provide the team with a wealth of data to validate and improve CYNGSS satellite observations over land, Roof said.

New Zealand’s diverse topography also provides useful points of comparison for data collected from similar areas around the world.

The receivers, which were developed and tested at the University of Michigan, are lightweight and draw little power from the aircraft, Roof noted. The team plans to keep them operational for at least one year.

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