The Twin Otter carrying the ASIRAS radar altimeter and a laser scanner leaving Alert on the way to its rendez-vous with the NASA P-3. Photo: Rene Forsberg.

ESA and NASA join forces in CryoSat airborne campaign over the Arctic Ocean

Tuesday 10 Apr 12


René Forsberg
DTU Space
+45 45 25 97 19
Scientists from DTU Space play a big role in a joint flight campaign between ESA and NASA.

After months of preparation, a remarkable collaboration between the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA took place when impressive large-scale airborne activities across the frozen Arctic Ocean were carried out recently. Their ambitious goal: To record sea ice thickness and surface conditions below using a broad array of sensors spread across the different planes over exactly along the line traced out by the ESA CryoSat satellite orbiting high above. Scientists from the National Space Institute (DTU Space) carried out measurements on behalf of ESA.

The airborne scientific instruments range from simple cameras to record visually sea ice conditions, through laser scanners which generate stunning and beautiful maps of ice surface heights to sophisticated radar altimeters such as the ESA Airborne Synthetic Aperture and Interferometric Radar Altimeter System (ASIRAS) instrument and the NASA snow radar which mimic the CryoSat satellite measurements from the plane, but at much higher resolution.

Transatlantic scientific cooperation

The many participating scientists from Europe, the US and Canada expect that pooling plane time and measurements will lead to greatly improved accuracy of the global ice thickness trends measured by the ESA CryoSat and NASA IceSat missions and a better understanding of the impact of a changing climate on the Arctic environment.

Rene Forsberg from the DTU Space comments: "As a scientist I value the collaborations very much. I've found out through my experience in combining gravity and altimeter measurements over ice sheets that different instruments provide only one piece of the puzzle. It is by putting all the data together that we can solve the puzzle and move forward."

Joint flights a resounding success

Coordinated campaign activities in these extremely cold and remote locations are difficult and include numerous challenges. The most obvious are the extreme weather conditions. While much of Europe and North America is now enjoying the spring weather, temperatures in the high arctic at this time of year still often dip below -30 Celsius and represent an omnipresent challenge both in running the planes and the complex on-board scientific instruments, and for the participants. Distance and time zones are another challenge as the NASA team is located in Thule, Greenland and the ESA team up in Alert, Canada. Last, but not least, satellite operations at ESA such as orbit manoeuvres and instrument mode settings need to be coordinated with field activities to maximise the scientific return.

Despite these and many other challenges, the joint flights proved a resounding success. On two occasions during the past week as the ESA CryoSat satellite came over the horizon on the other side of the Arctic Ocean and raced across the frozen sea at over 6 km/second, the ESA and NASA planes met up along the coast and headed out over the frozen water following within meters the line traced out on the ice below by CryoSat.

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