Farrell to bridge terms as science team member

NASA’s Operation IceBridge mission, which aims to collect data on changes in polar ice in critical regions over a six-year span, is notable for its open, peer-review application process — anyone can apply to become a science team member for one of its two three-year segments.

Although team members are elected for just three years in order to ensure fresh ideas and contributions to the mission, ESSIC researcher Sinead Farrell was recently appointed to a second term with IceBridge, meaning she will have worked on the mission from its launch in 2009 to its completion in 2016.

The purpose of the IceBridge mission is to provide continuity of data collection in between the NASA ICESat satellite mission, and ICESat-2, which will launch in 2016. IceBridge is an airborne mission, a type of remote sensing with which Farrell now has a decade of experience.

“My first interaction with airborne science for sea ice was in 2003,” she said. “They were missions of opportunity; we just got one or two flights to try out the instrument response over sea ice. Then, obviously, as time went on, it developed into much a bigger mission.”

NASA’s IceBridge mission has between 10 and 15 science team members at any given time, Farrell said, and one of her main roles involves helping with satellite underflights, designing experiments that capture data from satellites.

“We take the aircraft, and we actually fly underneath orbiting satellites that are in operation right now,” she said. “That’s a challenging thing to do, but it’s fun when we pull it off.”

The goal of IceBridge’s satellite underflights is to measure sea ice freeboard, which Farrell said is typically just 20 to 40 centimeters of ice sticking above the water surface, making it much easier to measure from an aircraft. The team then compares data from the satellite and aircraft on the ground, she said.

“You can imagine how difficult that is to measure from space,” she said. “The data we get from the aircraft is quite detailed, and we can use that to better understand the information we’re getting from the satellite. It’s sort of like eyes on the ground.”

Although IceBridge is currently working in Antarctica, Farrell’s next time working with the team in the field could be in the Arctic region in mid-March, she said. And after the IceBridge mission wraps up in 2016,

Farrell will transition over to the ICESat-2 mission. “Being a member of both teams means that we can do an even better job of linking the two missions together,” she said.