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.
25 February 2020

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 flightpaths across Aotearoa, the Q300 is the perfect aircraft to pilot the mission.

"Our Q300s cruise at 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 more widely across the Q300 fleet.

Air New Zealand has 23 of the 50-seat Q300 turboprop aircraft in its fleet. The Q300s operates to 19 domestic ports, with each aircraft flying around 50 services a week

Note to editors:

  • NASA's Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) mission is a constellation of eight small satellites which measure wind speeds over the Earth's oceans. It works by measuring GNSS signals, such as GPS, reflected off the surface of the ocean. This increases the ability of scientists to understand and predict cyclones. However, this approach can also be used to collect environmental data for other purposes and the potential of this land-based science is just beginning to be realised.
  • GNSS reflections over land are sensitive to soil moisture with possibilities to monitor droughts and flooding, and track coastal and wetland conditions, monitoring erosion. In the long-term, these dynamics are impacted by climate change, so this data can be used to inform research.
  • The dense and frequent measurements provided by Air New Zealand aircraft will benefit NASA in several ways. CYGNSS has good satellite coverage of the northern part of the country, including the area around Auckland, so there will be plenty of overlap between its measurements and those collected by Air New Zealand. Daily comparisons between satellite and aircraft data will be possible over a sustained period, building out a picture of environmental change across seasons and during weather events such as flooding. After enough time, longer term climatic changes could be detectable.
  • CYGNSS satellites orbit the tropical storm belt with coverage down to 38 degrees latitude. Through the Q300 network, Air New Zealand measurements will extend well south of this, meaning data will be captured across New Zealand for the first time.
  • The CYGNSS mission science is led in partnership by researchers at NASA and the University of Michigan, including Professor Chris Ruf of the Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering, who is the Principal Investigator in the NASA CYGNSS Earth Venture Mission.
  • The Science Payload Operation Centre at the University of Auckland will be developed by a team of researchers from the University of Auckland and the University of Canterbury. It will support GNSS-R data handling and operations, integrated instrument calibration and measurement validation. It is also likely to support field work for these purposes.

Ends

Issued by Air New Zealand Communications.

Email: media@airnz.co.nz  │  Phone: +64 21 747 320  │  Twitter: @AirNZMedia

MBIE media contact: 027 442 2141 | media@mbie.govt.nz | Twitter: @MBIE_Sci

University of Auckland media contact: Lisa Finucane, Media and Communications Manager | 021 677 216 | l.finucane@auckland.ac.nz | Twitter: @AucklandUni

NASA media contact: Steve Cole, NASA Headquarters, Washington DC | +1 202-358-0918 | stephen.e.cole@nasa.gov | Twitter: @NASA

University of Michigan media contact: EJ Olsen, Marketing Manager, Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering | +1 734-548-3204 | ejolsen@umich.edu | Twitter: @umclasp