Engineers deliver instrument to study ‘greenhouse gases’ from a NASA unmanned aircraft

Posted by er134 at Dec 22, 2014 11:57 AM |
University of Leicester is science lead on project

Issued by University of Leicester Press Office on 22 December 2014

Engineers in Edinburgh used to building instruments to look at the atmospheres of stars and distant planets have turned their attention to the atmosphere of Earth.  A prototype instrument designed and built at the UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC) is on its way to NASA in the USA to help improve our understanding of the Earth’s natural carbon cycle.

Supported by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), researchers from the Universities of Leicester and Edinburgh will use the instrument to measure the emission and uptake of greenhouse gases.  Understanding these gases is a prerequisite for managing future levels of carbon dioxide to support effective international agreements and national emission reduction programmes.

The UK ATC engineers, who are part of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), normally design and build spectrometers that study planetary and galaxy formation in the early universe and stellar nurseries, but have now applied these instrument techniques, building high resolution spectrometers with very low noise, to the challenges we face here on Earth.

The prototype instrument they have built at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh is for the GHOST (GreenHouse Observations of the Stratosphere and Troposphere) project. It will sit in the belly of a NASA Global Hawk Unmanned Aerial vehicle, at altitudes up to 20,000m, above the troposphere where most of the Earth’s weather occurs, for just over a day on one tank of fuel.

Prof Gillian Wright, Director of the UKATC, said: ‘The shipping of GHOST to NASA is an important milestone in transferring technology developed for astronomy to innovative instruments for Earth observations.  It will offer the UK additional capabilities to deploy GHOST or similar instruments on our own national airborne research platforms.’

GHOST will provide fine-scale greenhouse gas measurements that are expected to fill a measurement gap left by space-borne platforms and conventional in situ instrumentation. It will collect sunlight that has been reflected from the ocean surface below and disperse it into a spectrum from which individual molecules can be identified. This will allow atmospheric columns of carbon dioxide, methane and carbon monoxide to be measured over huge swaths of the Pacific Ocean. The researchers will then combine this data with a large-scale numerical weather model to understand the atmospheric transport of the gases.

Andy Vick, Innovations Manager at STFC’s UKATC facility said “In order to make GHOST work on the aircraft we had to take into account extreme pressure, temperature and vibrational variations, which we wouldn’t normally have to consider when building instruments for a telescope, and then make the instrument operate autonomously, so that even if direct communication with the instrument is lost it will still take useful scientific data. In addition, we have worked with Leicester scientists to develop qualification and calibration methods that can work in the laboratory or on a desert airstrip.”

Dr Hartmut Boesch, the science lead at the University of Leicester, said ‘GHOST is a truly unique instrument and, thanks to its innovative technology, will allow us for the first time to observe the total amount of the key carbon gases carbon dioxide, methane and carbon monoxide at the same time. This, combined with the capability of the Global Hawk to fly for over a day, will give us an unprecedented view on the atmosphere.’

Prof Paul Palmer, science co-lead at the University of Edinburgh, added “GHOST represents a new collaboration between groups that have in the past focused on Astronomy and Earth observation, and a strategic alliance within Edinburgh, and I hope these will ultimately lead to more opportunities in the future.”


Notes to Editors

This research is supported by NERC’s Coordinated Airborne Studies in the Tropics (CAST) project.

Images available:

- UKATC team prepping GHOST before travel

- GHOST being wrapped ready for travel


GHOST is a project of the Universities of Leicester and Edinburgh and the UK ATC (instrument design and build).

GHOST will use a novel multiple-order spectrograph originally developed in Edinburgh for ground and space based infrared astronomy which can examine infrared light between 1 and 2.4 microns.  It will do this by collecting sunlight that has been reflected from the ocean surface below and dispersing it into a spectrum from which individual molecules can be identified. This will allow atmospheric columns of carbon dioxide, methane and carbon monoxide to be measured over huge swaths of the Pacific Ocean. This data will then be combined with a large-scale numerical weather model to understand the atmospheric transport of the gases.

The GHOST instrument will be despatched from Edinburgh to the NASA Armstrong Flight Research Centre at Edwards Air Force Base in the California desert, where it will be flown for the first time in early 2015. The instrument has already been through ground based testing and calibration at the UKATC, including observations of real solar spectra through the open doors of the integration laboratory. The GHOST team will travel to California in January 2015 to take the instrument through functional, vibration and high altitude simulation testing to achieve flight clearance approval. It will then have its first engineering test flight at the end of February with science flights following in March.

For more information contact:

UKATC: Dr A.J Vick Tel:

STFC Media contact

Wendy Ellison,;

University of Leicester:

Ather Mirza, E:

University of Edinburgh:

Catriona Kelly Tel:


Tamera Jones


Based at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh and operated by STFC, the UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC) is the national centre for astronomical technology. The UK ATC designs and builds instruments for many of the world’s major telescopes. It also project manages UK and international collaborations and its scientists carry out observational and theoretical research into questions such as the origins of planets and galaxies. The UK ATC has been at the forefront of previous key initiatives at the VLT, including the construction of KMOS (K-band Multi-Object Spectrograph) which enables 24 objects to be observed simultaneously in infrared light.

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) is keeping the UK at the forefront of international science and tackling some of the most significant challenges facing society such as meeting our future energy needs, monitoring and understanding climate change, and global security.  The Council has a broad science portfolio and works with the academic and industrial communities to share its expertise in materials science, space and ground-based astronomy technologies, laser science, microelectronics, wafer scale manufacturing, particle and nuclear physics, alternative energy production, radio communications and radar.

STFC operates or hosts world class experimental facilities including in the UK the ISIS pulsed neutron source, the Central Laser Facility, and LOFAR, and is also the majority shareholder in Diamond Light Source Ltd.

It enables UK researchers to access leading international science facilities by funding membership of international bodies including European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN), the Institut Laue Langevin (ILL), European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) and the European Southern Observatory (ESO).  STFC is one of seven publicly-funded research councils and is an independent, non-departmental public body of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

Follow us on Twitter at @STFC_Matters.

The University of Edinburgh has been a world-leading centre of academic excellence since its inception in 1583. Its mission is the creation, dissemination and curation of knowledge. Researchers in University’s top-ranked School of GeoSciences investigate the forces and factors that shape our world and the environments in which we live.

The University of Leicester is a leading UK University committed to international excellence through the creation of world changing research and high quality, inspirational teaching. Leicester is consistently one of the most socially inclusive of the UK’s top 20 universities with a long-standing commitment to providing fairer and equal access to higher education. Leicester is a three-time winner of the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education and is the only University to win seven consecutive awards from the Times Higher. Leicester is ranked among the top one per-cent of universities in the world by the THE World University Rankings [].  See also

NERC: the Natural Environment Research Council - is the leading funder of independent research, training and innovation in environmental science in the UK. We invest public money in world-leading science, designed to help us sustain and benefit from our natural resources, predict and respond to natural hazards and understand environmental change. We work closely with policymakers and industry to make sure our knowledge can support sustainable economic growth and wellbeing in the UK and around the world.

We are supported mainly by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), but our activities and funding decisions are independent of government.


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