PALMDALE – NASA’s DC-8 Flying Laboratory recently reached its third decade of delivering groundbreaking science.
To celebrate the project’s milestone and update the community about the aircraft, Matt Berry, DC-8 lead operations engineer, explained the project’s capabilities and missions during a special presentation July 30 at Palmdale’s Thursday Night on the Square event. The presentation was at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center’s Educator Resource Center located in the Aerospace Education Research and Operations (AERO) Institute.
The aircraft, now used as a versatile airborne laboratory for science, began as an Alitalia Airlines DC-8-62 series manufactured in 1969, Berry explained. In 1986, NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, California, purchased the aircraft for the Airborne Science program and converted it for research into the DC-8-72 series. On Jan. 1, 1998, the DC-8 was transferred to the Dryden Flight Research Center (now Armstrong). From 2005 to 2008 the University of North Dakota managed the project and the DC-8 returned to Armstrong in 2008.
The DC-8 crew includes two pilots, a flight engineer and a navigator, and typically flies missions of about six to eight hours. Some missions that require longer flights to reach the object of interest can stretch to 12 hours, Berry explained.
Missions tend to be at lower altitudes – sometimes as low as 500 feet – to collect information on atmospheric particles, Berry said. However, the aircraft is capable of flying at altitudes of up to 41,000 feet for missions such as calibrating NASA satellites.
A mission can include as many as 42 experimenters on board at one time to use some of the key modifications to the aircraft that provide a multitude of science experimentation possibilities.
DC-8 missions support the Earth science community, including academia, government and international investigators for missions such as sensor development, satellite sensor verification, and geophysical research using in-situ instruments and remote sensing instruments. Research topics include atmospheric chemistry, biofuels, meteorology, hydrology, climatology, geology, volcanology, ecology, archaeological surveys, social science and biology.
Instrument versatility and variety includes lasers and lidars (which essentially are remote sensors that illuminate a target with a laser to determine distance) that measure chemicals in the air and water vapor. In addition, the aircraft carries instruments that measure trace gases, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, methane, water vapor and ozone.
Some examples include the tracking and observation of the re-entry of the European Space Agency’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV-1) Space Vehicle in 2009 and hurricane studies such as Hurricane Earl in September 2010. Other science missions have focused on atmospheric chemistry, ozone studies and weather tracking like the recent Plains Elevated Convection at Night (PECAN) mission. That mission included the study of thunderstorms where, “storms were all over the place and we had to adjust in flight to track the storm,” Berry said.
Missions are usually four to six weeks in length and take up to two weeks to reconfigure the aircraft to conduct the science. Three to four missions a year are routine for the aircraft, Berry said.
Berry also discussed the complexity of his job. He coordinates the various aspects of the mission and communication with the science teams, all levels of management, technicians, mechanics, avionics technicians, shops and fabrication. Berry also serves as the technical representative for the ground crews.
A diverse group of sensors fly on the aircraft and it is his responsibility to ensure the instrumentation racks are strong enough to hold the new tools. Lasers require extra care to protect the people working with them. He also checks with the DC-8 ground crew on the status of the flight, ensuring the paperwork is in order and essentially, “on flight day make sure everything is ready to go.”
“It’s also like a testbed for new equipment,” he added. “The science teams bring a lot of different experiments. Each campaign has its own unique item that it is searching.”
The flying laboratory travels to destinations all over the globe. Some of those locations include the North and South poles, Kansas, Spain, Alaska, Singapore, Easter Island, Greenland, Costa Rica, Australia, Korea, China, Japan, Hong Kong, Tahiti, Guam, France, Fiji, Ireland, Scotland and Chile.
“I truly love my job. There is never a dull moment,” Berry said. “It’s always going to be something different every day. I really love what I do.”