UK climate instruments take a ride on NASA’s Global Hawk

Posted by ap507 at Mar 06, 2015 10:15 AM |
Leicester plays lead role in science research

Issued by the University of Leicester Press Office on 6 March 2015

Two cutting-edge science instruments developed by UK researchers took to the skies aboard NASA’s Global Hawk research aircraft for the first time yesterday.

The two instruments are the first from the UK to take advantage of the Global Hawk’s capabilities. They were developed as part of a four-year collaboration between the Natural Environment Research Council’s (NERC) Co-ordinated Airborne Studies in the Tropics (CAST) project and NASA’s Airborne Tropical Tropopause Experiment (ATTREX).

The uninhabited aircraft, based at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Centre, California, can fly at twice the height of Mt. Everest and double the altitude of a commercial jet for more than a day at a time, travelling the equivalent of half of Earth’s circumference in a single flight in an atmosphere where the air pressure is less than a tenth of that at sea level.

The aircraft is flying above the equatorial regions of the Pacific Ocean at an altitude of 20km, where the lowest layer of the atmosphere, the troposphere, meets the stratosphere above. Scientists believe this area, known as the tropopause, plays a critical role in Earth’s climate.

The first of the instruments, GHOST (Greenhouse Observations of the Stratosphere and Troposphere), was developed by the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre in Edinburgh, in a joint effort with the Universities of Edinburgh and Leicester.

Dr Hartmut Boesch, the science lead at the University of Leicester, said: ‘The Global Hawk is an ideal vehicle for our GHOST instrument and thanks to its long duration, we can obtain an unique dataset of atmospheric greenhouse gases that will help us to better understand the drivers for the variability of these key gases. ‘

Sitting in the belly of the Global Hawk, GHOST behaves like a sub-orbital satellite instrument, measuring greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane across large regions but in fine detail. This will allow scientists to produce precise maps of where greenhouse gases are being released and taken up at the Earth’s surface – vital information for international climate negotiations.

The second instrument, AIITS (the Aerosol Ice Interface Transition Spectrometer), measures particles like dust, water droplets, and ice crystals. The transport of particles and pollutants between the troposphere and stratosphere plays a crucial role in the climate system and the health of the ozone layer. AIITS was jointly developed by the universities of Hertfordshire and Manchester.

The two UK pieces of kit are joined onboard by instruments from the ATTREX project. These focus on the transport of water vapour and other trace gases into the stratosphere. Studies show that even slight changes in the amount of water vapour in the stratosphere can warm temperatures by absorbing heat rising from the surface.  

Dr Neil Harris at the University of Cambridge, science lead for the NERC CAST project, said:

“These are important issues for climate science. The chance to fly two new UK instruments on the Global Hawk is very exciting. We are flying at temperatures below -80C in the equatorial East Pacific to investigate how thin cirrus clouds form. We then track back below the new NASA OCO-2 satellite to provide more detailed measurements where the satellite measures.”

Andy Vick, Innovations Manager at STFC’s UKATC facility and the lead investigator for the GHOST project celebrated the successful first flight of GHOST and said:

“These incredibly sensitive instruments, that were originally developed to meet major astronomical challenges by dealing with very low levels of light, are now being used to instead accurately measure the incredibly tiny fluctuations in the levels of greenhouse gases. This new information will allow us to better understand these changes and the data collected will be used to evaluate and improve global models used to predict future climate change.”


Further information:

NERC media office

STFC media office


Dr A J Vick

An image of the Global Hawk with instruments on board (CREDIT: ‘James Ross / NASA’) is available at:

Further images are available from the NERC and STFC media offices

NERC is the UK's main agency for funding and managing research, training and knowledge exchange in the environmental sciences. Our work covers the full range of atmospheric, Earth, biological, terrestrial and aquatic science, from the deep oceans to the upper atmosphere and from the poles to the equator. We co-ordinate some of the world's most exciting research projects, tackling major issues such as climate change, environmental influences on human health, the genetic make-up of life on Earth, and much more. NERC is a non-departmental public body. We receive around £370m of annual funding from the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS).

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

UKATC 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.

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