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NASA to Send Aircraft in Search of Climate Change Clues

Jan 10, 2013 02:37 AM EST

NASA is all set to send a remotely piloted research aircraft this month onward over the tropical Pacific Ocean to study how warming climate is changing the Earth.

Six science flights of the Airborne Tropical Tropopause Experiment (ATTREX), one of several of NASA's science missions, are likely to be sent between Jan. 16 and March 15, 2013. As part of the mission, Global Hawk aircraft, which has the ability to make 30-hour flights, will be operated by NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

Eleven instruments have been installed in the aircraft, including remote sensors for measuring clouds and water vapor, and to trace gases around the aircraft.

The aircraft will fly as high as 65,000 feet over the tropical Pacific Ocean to understand the impact of compounds like water vapor and ozone in the stratosphere on the Earth's climate. The stratosphere is the uppermost layer of the atmosphere.

Changes in water vapor and ozone could have a huge effect on global climate. The processes that are involved in the rise and fall of these compounds are not well understood. The ATTREX mission will study the changes in the composition of these compounds in the upper regions of the troposphere, the lowest layer of the atmosphere which is closest to the Earth's surface. There is a layer called tropopause between the troposphere and stratosphere, a point from where ozone and other gases enter the stratosphere.

Earlier studies have shown that changes in stratospheric humidity might impact the climate. Using instruments from Global Hawk, the tropopause layer will be sampled near the equator off the coast of Central America.

"The ATTREX payload will provide unprecedented measurements of the tropical tropopause layer," Eric Jensen, ATTREX principal investigator at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., said in a statement.

"This is our first opportunity to sample the tropopause region during winter in the Northern Hemisphere when the region is coldest and extremely dry air enters the stratosphere."

Scientists hope the data obtained through this mission will help in improving global model predictions of stratospheric humidity and composition.

Apart from this mission, the ATTREX team is also planning to send remotely operated aircraft to Guam and Australia in 2014.

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