ATom Integration

Last week I came down to NASA Armstrong with a couple of colleagues to integrate our instruments onto the plane for our upcoming round-the-world summer flight mission, ATom (the Atmospheric Tomography Mission). The plane is based at the NASA Armstrong flight research center in California.

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The hangar at NASA Armstrong where the plane is based.

The base is a huge hangar, housing the DC-8 (the plane we’re flying on in out upcoming ATom mission link) two ER-2s (small planes capable of flying in the stratosphere that can only carry a small payload of instruments and a single pilot in a full space suit) and a G2 (a smaller research plane, capable of carrying about 6 scientists + instruments), along with other planes from time to time. It’s so large that there are a few bicycles inside the hangar that people use to get around it.

All planes at NASA Armstrong are used for scientific research. Off one side of the hangar is a large lab space that scientists use to prepare instruments for flight and maintain instruments that fly on out-and-back flights from Palmdale. As well as ourselves and other ATom scientists in the lab, there were a number of European and American scientists flying instruments on the ER-2s.

The DC-8 we'll be flying in for ATom in the hangar at NASA Armstrong
The DC-8 we’ll be flying in for ATom in the hangar at NASA Armstrong

In the lab we reassembled our instruments in the flight rack and tested them before loading everything onto the place. We also met as a team each day, scientists and crew, to discuss progress on the upload and other mission related items.

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Charles Brock, Agnieska Kupc and myself working on our instrument rack in the lab at NASA Armstrong before putting it on the plane

The rack is lifted mechanically into the plane through the doors and then manipulated into place by the crew. It’s bolted into the seat-track where seats were be bolted down in a passenger plane. We then plumb it onto our inlet that pulls in air from outside through tube sticking through a window-plate. Route our exhaust down to the back of the plane where it’s sucked outside through a valve, connect everything to the plane power and spend a lot of time screwing and tying down everything so that it cannot shake loose during flights. This involved whole days working on the rack on the plane. Palmdale frequently gets above 40C (104F) this time of year and the hangar cannot be air conditioned because of its size. The plane has some air-conditioning piped to it from a ground unit, but with the outside heat and also of electrical scientific equipment operating inside (not to mention a lot of busy scientists and crew) it gets pretty hot. We’re working often in the cramped spaces between two instruments, or a rack and the wall, and often laying cabling and plumbing along the floor, so it’s hot, awkward and dirty work, but it’s also very exciting to be working on the plane and seeing everything come together for the flights.

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The AMP (aerosol microphysical processes) rack waiting to be lifted onto the plane
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The AMP rack being lifted onto the plane

Once installed on the plane, we ran more tests to monitor instrument performance and check everything was working well in it’s flight configuration. All this work took about 11 days down in Palmdale for our team of three scientists. It was intense, in terms of hours, and also physically. Lot’s of heavy equipment, long times spent squatting or kneeling in awkward positions to access different parts of the rack or plane – we often felt it in our legs and arms at the end of the day. I enjoy the physical aspects of the work and find it exhilarating to work on the NASA base, surrounded by such awesome equipment and highly specialized crews and pilots. We also get to know each other better as a team of scientists, often grabbing dinner or a beer all together at the end of the day.

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The AMP rack in position on the DC8 -half way through sorting the plumbing and wiring.
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My “office” for the next few months. Running our instruments on the DC-8 (still in the hangar).

Now integration is complete we’re back in Boulder to sort out some data processing for a few days, and then coming back for the shake-down flight in a week’s time, where the crew will fly the plane with its complete pay-load to check everything is installed correctly and doesn’t move about or break during a flight.

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