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May 13, 1997
David Morse Ames Research Center, Mountain View, CA (Phone: 415/604-4724) RELEASE: 97-94 NASA EARTH SCIENCE RESEARCH AIRCRAFT SOARS TO NEW HEIGHTS A NASA ER-2 aircraft, complete with a full array of science instrument packages, recently conducted its first operational mission at an altitude of 70,000 feet, a key region for atmospheric research. The vehicle currently is on deployment to Alaska for missions over the North Pole in support of a project known as POLARIS, which stands for Photochemistry of Ozone Loss in the Arctic Region In Summer. NASA has two such vehicles in its ER-2 fleet based at the Agency's Ames Research Center, Mountain View, CA. The ER-2 is a civilian version of the U-2 aerial reconnaissance plane. A program to modernize the vehicles by making them lighter, more fuel efficient and more productive was completed recently. Over the next year, these improvements will increase significantly ithe size of science payloads and enhance the altitude performance of the ER-2s in support of NASA's Mission to Planet Earth enterprise. Following a recent flight, Jim Barrilleaux, an ER-2 pilot and acting chief of Ames' High Altitude Missions branch, expressed his surprise at the magnitude of difference in feel and performance of the vehicle. "It flies like a completely new aircraft," he said. "It feels really tight." Earth scientists also are excited about the enhanced capability. "It is really critical that we have access to consistent measurements at this key altitude, which is an intermediate region between aerosol particle-driven processes measured by standard aircraft-based sensors and gas-phase processes monitored by orbiting satellites," said Dr. Michael Kurylo, manager of the Upper Atmosphere Research Program at NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC.
The first deployment of an upgraded ER-2 currently is being conducted over the North Pole through May 15. The present POLARIS payload utilizes two large superpods attached to the wings. This more than doubles the available volume for science instruments, while still permitting operation at enhanced altitudes of 70,000 feet and above, according to flight engineers. The POLARIS mission is seeking to understand the fundamental chemistry that dominates the naturally occuring seasonal reduction of ozone over the pole in the course of the Arctic summer. Many of the chemical reactions in which project scientists are interested in occur at altitudes in the 75,000-foot range. Now, even a fully loaded ER-2 can operate approximately 2,500 feet higher than previously possible due to lower fuel requirements and lighter aircraft weight. This increased altitude capability permits extension of in-place measurements for validating and upgrading existing models of the upper atmosphere. Additional information about POLARIS can be obtained at the website: http://cloud1.arc.nasa.gov/polaris NASA's Mission to Planet Earth program is a long-term, internationally coordinated research effort to study the Earth as a global environmental system. -end-