U-M Uses Passenger Airplane to Understand Climate

Researchers at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor have installed an advanced GPS receiver on an Air New Zealand passenger plane to try to improve both the forecasting of flash floods and the understanding of how climate change is affecting the South Pacific island nation.
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Air New Zealand passenger plane
U-M researchers have installed a GPS receiver on an Air New Zealand passenger plane to track flash floods and climate change. // Image courtesy of the University of Michigan

Researchers at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor have installed an advanced GPS receiver on an Air New Zealand passenger plane to try to improve both the forecasting of flash floods and the understanding of how climate change is affecting the South Pacific island nation.

The work expands on the Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) satellite mission, which involves a constellation of eight small satellites launched by NASA in 2016 and led by U-M.  CYGNSS is designed to study how tropical cyclones and hurricanes form and intensify.

“The collaboration with New Zealand is a unique opportunity for both CYGNSS and climate science as a whole,” says Chris Ruf, the Frederick Bartman collegiate professor of climate and space science at U-M. “Satellite intercomparisons with airborne measurements are not new, but continuous, long-term operation on a commercial aircraft is. The sustained data record will allow us to track and characterize surface processes on time scales from days to seasons to years with unprecedented resolution.”

The CYGNSS spacecraft use Global Navigation Satellite Reflectometry (GNSS-R) receivers to capture GPS signals reflected off the surface of the ocean and measure wind speed within the core of severe storms. Since launch, the mission has included land-based observations such as soil moisture content, drought, and flooding.

An Air New Zealand Q300 passenger aircraft will be fitted with next-generation GNSS-R receivers that will gather environmental data as flies daily across the country. If successful, Air New Zealand will explore introducing the technology more widely on its fleet.

While the CYGNSS satellites operate 300 miles above Earth, the aircraft cruise at around 16,000 feet. The lower altitude provides better sensitivity and higher spatial resolution to validate the CYGNSS measurements and improve their interpretation. The new receivers are being designed and built by the U-M Physics Research Laboratory for NASA and will be installed in late 2020.

To process the data collected by the aircraft, New Zealand Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment is establishing a Science Payload Operation Centre in the University of Auckland’s Department of Electrical, Computer, and Software Engineering. A joint team of researchers from the University of Auckland and the University of Canterbury will develop the center, which is expected to be operational in late 2020. The data will be processed and analyzed by NASA and New Zealand and U-M researchers. The researchers plan to use the data for scientific research into the long-term impacts of climate change.

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