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Air New Zealand Joins NASA Climate Science Mission

In a world first, Air New Zealand and NASA are working together to monitor climate change impacts, with the airline to collect unique environmental data during domestic flights.

Air New Zealand is set to be the first passenger airline in the world to join a NASA earth science mission, with one of its Q300 aircraft to be fitted with next-generation satellite receivers later this year.

Using GPS signals reflected from the earth’s surface, the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) receiver unit will act as a scientific “black box” during flights, gathering data to better predict severe storms, as well as enabling new climate change research in New Zealand.

Air New Zealand Chief Operational Integrity and Standards Officer Captain David Morgan says with flight paths across Aotearoa, the Q300 is the perfect aircraft to pilot the mission.

“Our Q300s cruise around 16,000 feet – much closer to the land and sea than NASA’s satellites. Placing receivers on aircraft will enhance the resolution and quality of information, giving scientists an unprecedented view over our entire network, from Kerikeri to Invercargill.

“As an airline, we’re already seeing the impact of climate change, with flights impacted by volatile weather and storms. Climate change is our biggest sustainability challenge so it’s incredible we can use our daily operations to enable this world-leading science.”

Data collected inflight will feed into NASA’s Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS). Dr Gail Skofronick-Jackson, NASA’s CYGNSS Program Scientist in the agency’s Earth Science Division, says with Air New Zealand on board there’s an opportunity to extend the mission and monitor the environmental signs of climate change.

“CYGNSS uses GPS signals, bounced off the ocean, to measure wind speeds and help scientists better predict cyclones and hurricanes. Over land, the technology can determine soil moisture levels, so it can also monitor climate change indicators such as drought, flooding and coastline erosion.

“This is a new approach to climate science and exciting terrain. The next-generation receivers Air New Zealand will fly have advanced features, new to CYGNSS, so we’re excited to test their capabilities and explore their potential for future spaceborne missions.”

The project has been made possible through an agreement between NASA and the New Zealand Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE). MBIE’s General Manager of Science, Innovation and International Dr Peter Crabtree says the partnership aims to engage New Zealanders in a globally significant science mission.

“Through this partnership Air New Zealand’s world-class engineers and researchers across New Zealand will have the opportunity to work with NASA on a mission that will advance global understanding of the impacts of climate change.”

The University of Auckland will establish a Science Payload Operations Centre to receive and process data collected inflight. Project Lead, Professor Delwyn Moller, says the centre will manage what could ultimately be New Zealand’s largest source of environmental data.

“Local scientists will work with the NASA CYGNSS team to process these unique measurements into environmental data, opening up a range of research opportunities and potential uses, from flood risk-management to agriculture and resource planning. Though this collaboration, Kiwi scientists will be at the forefront of this emerging field.”

The receivers are being developed by the University of Michigan for NASA’s Earth Science Technology Office. Air New Zealand engineers will fit the first Q300 in late 2020 and if the approach is successful, the airline will explore introducing the technology more widely across the Q300 fleet.

Air New Zealand has 23 of the 50-seat Q300 turboprop aircraft in its fleet. The Q300 fleet operates to 19 domestic ports, with each aircraft flying around 50 services a week.

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