By 1st Lt. Lisa Meiman
821st Air Base Group public affairs
THULE AIR BASE, Greenland – Thule Air Base is serving as a staging base for a NASA crew to monitor changes in Greenland’s and Iceland’s ice caps using newly developed radars that may make their way into space in the future.
From May 2 to June 8, a Gulfstream III aircraft carrying up to 10 NASA employees and two types of radar will fly about 15 six-hour trips over the ice caps.
“Multiple accurate passes allows us to see changes in thickness, flow and surface of the ice,” said Mike Holtz, operation engineer.
The purpose of NASA’s operation is two-fold. First, the measurements support the international polar year mission – a multinational effort committed to studying how arctic regions of the Earth are changing. Second, the crew is using new and pre-existing technology, both testing and validating the tools and measurements in current and future satellite operations.
“Thule has supported the scientific community for years by providing a base of operations in a unique arctic environment. By doing this, the Air Force can assist in making new discoveries and noting changes about our planet to the benefit of humankind,” said Col. Tom Peppard, 821st Air Base Group commander. “We have always shared a strong partnership with NASA and its research and data collection operations and are proud to have the air crews here now.”
The radars on the aircraft, developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, may possibly be used in future space-based radars. This operation helps evaluate the usefulness and accuracy of the new radars. The L-band synthetic aperture radar will survey flow and thickness several hundred feet under the ice’s surface, and a KA-band glacier and land ice surface interferometer will capture surface imagery.
“We need to compare what’s happening below the ice with what’s happening above,” Mr. Holtz said.
In order to ensure the plane continues to fly the same route each pass during the operation and years into the future, the plane is also equipped with a platform precision autopilot operational engine, which keeps the aircraft within 32 feet (10 meters) of its previously recorded flight path.
“PPA allows for much more precise flying. We can come back months or years later and still follow the same flight path within those 10 meters,” said Mr. Holtz, a former Air Force officer.
The crew performs about three sorties a week each lasting about six hours.
The crew, all from California, is in constant contact with the Thule weather shop to stay current with northern Greenland’s often unpredictable and sometimes violent weather.
“We’ve been pretty well accommodated. The ground crews have been great, and kudos for letting us stay in the hangar. It’s been fantastic,” Mr. Holtz said.
The plane is an Air Force version of a C-20 Gulfstream aircraft on loan from the Air Force. It’s capable of flying at high altitudes and speed for about seven hours.