Air New Zealand plane to moonlight as aerial climate monitor for NASA
NASA and Air New Zealand have entered a first-of-a-kind agreement that will see the carrier equip one of its Q300 aircraft with special receivers to gather data for environmental monitoring. It is hoped this will assist scientists in better understanding hurricanes and tropical cyclones, but in the longer term help track trends associated with climate change.
The initiative is part of NASA's Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) mission, which kicked off in 2016 and gathers science data from GPS satellites in orbit over the tropics to track wind speed over the ocean. It does this by using reflectivity receivers to analyze how GPS signals bounce off a smooth, calm ocean surface compared to choppy, wind-affected waters.
By partnering with Air New Zealand, NASA hopes to extend these capabilities to land areas. It says its scientists have recently learned how the technique used by the CYGNSS satellites can also be used to monitor things like soil moisture, flooding and other changes in wetland and coastal environments.
“Partnering with New Zealand offers NASA and the CYGNSS team a unique opportunity to develop these secondary capabilities over land," says Gail Skofronick-Jackson, CYGNSS program scientist at NASA. "Taken together over time, they’ll also have an important story to tell about the long-term impacts of climate change to these landscapes."
The team has developed next-generation reflectivity receivers for the project, the first of which will be mounted to one of Air New Zealand's Q300 aircraft later this year. As the plane travels around the country, some of its flight paths will overlap with areas covered by the other CYGNSS satellites. In this way, some of the data it collects will also help validate and improve on these other observations.
The initiative makes Air New Zealand the first commercial airline to partner with NASA for science data collection. And with a total of 23 Q300s in its fleet, it is prepared to fit out more of its aircraft with the receiver technology further down the track.
“As an airline, we’re already seeing the impact of climate change, with flights impacted by volatile weather and storms. Climate change is our biggest sustainability challenge, so it’s incredible we can use our daily operations to enable this world-leading science,” said Air New Zealand Chief Operational Integrity and Standards Officer, Captain David Morgan.