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Energy and ClimateECClimateSierra Unmanned Aerial Vehicle to Begin Flights Over Arctic Sea Ice

Sierra Unmanned Aerial Vehicle to Begin Flights Over Arctic Sea Ice

On July 16th, the Sierra, a unique unmanned aerial system (UAS) operated by the NASA Ames Research Center in northern California (learn more), began flights over the Arctic sea ice as part of the MIZOPEX (Marginal Ice Zone Observations and Processes Experiment) mission. MIZOPEX is an intensive observing campaign that will characterize the ocean surface, sea ice, and atmosphere at the critical marginal ice zone (MIZ), the southern edges of the Arctic sea ice, as the seasonal land-fast ice melts away from the shores of the North Slope of Alaska and the MIZ moves northward. The Sierra UAS carries a sophisticated scientific payload that includes radiometers; imaging systems; laser/lidars; radars including synthetic aperture radars; and other ice-, ocean-, and atmospheric-sensing instruments.

NASA’s Sierra unmanned aerial system (UAS) outside the Atmospheric Radiation Monitoring (ARM) facility hangar at Oliktok Point on Alaska’s North Slope.

MIZOPEX mission flights are conducted from the Oliktok Point Long Range Radar Station at Oliktok Point, Alaska, about 30 miles west of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Flights begin in Restricted Area R-2204, a restricted flight area of 4 miles in diameter centered at Oliktok Point and assigned to the Office of Science in the U.S. Department of Energy for atmospheric research purposes. MIZOPEX mission flight paths extend northward through an altitude reservation corridor to international airspace. The MIZOPEX campaign will establish several important new “firsts” including the first flights of scientific payloads using a UAS from northern Alaska into international airspace and over international waters.

Through mid-August, MIZOPEX missions will include flights of the ScanEagle and DataHawk instrumented UASs. The ScanEagle will be operated by a team from the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. DataHawks will be operated by a team from the University of Colorado at Boulder that includes the MIZOPEX Principal Investigator, Professor Jim Maslanik.

Data gathered by Sierra’s sophisticated package of radiometers; imaging systems; laser/lidars; radars including synthetic-aperture radars; and other ice, ocean, and atmospheric sensing instruments will contribute to detailed and unprecedented measurements of clouds, aerosols, and other atmospheric parameters essential to understanding the role of Arctic clouds in climate processes and necessary for improving Arctic atmospheric models.

MIZOPEX success depends on interagency collaborations among NASA, DOE, FAA, and the U.S. Air Force as well as essential contributions from participating university partners. The DOE Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) Program and Sandia National Laboratories are supporting MIZOPEX as a collaborative and ARM-approved intensive operating period. Members of the North Slope of Alaska ARM team based at Sandia are on the ground at Oliktok during MIZOPEX operations to operate Restricted Area R-2204 on behalf of the DOE-SC Biological and Environmental Research Office.

The new  ARM Mobile Facility 3 (AMF3) will be deployed at Oliktok Point Long Range Radar Station starting in August. AMF3 will provide detailed and unprecedented measurements of clouds, aerosols, and other atmospheric parameters essential to understanding the role of Arctic clouds in climate processes and necessary for improving Arctic atmospheric models. Supporting operations of UASs and tethered balloons, AMF3 will significantly extend our abilities to understand and model clouds, aerosols, and radiative transfer processes in the Arctic.

Sandia was instrumental in supporting NASA to fly their UAS at our site in Alaska within our FAA-granted restricted airspace. NASA’s MIZOPEX mission was originally slated for another location but NASA ran into logistical issues and Mark Ivey (Geophysics and Atmospheric Sciences Dept.) and his team jumped through numerous legal and contractual hurdles to allow NASA to meet their deadlines by flying at Oliktok Point.

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