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NEWS | March 8, 2017

VXS-1 Warlocks Assist NASA in Snow Pack Research Campaign

By Michael Hart

The Scientific Development Squadron ONE (VXS-1) “Warlocks,” part of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, participated in SnowEx, a NASA-sponsored campaign, Feb. 16-26 in Colorado.

The exercise is a multi-year campaign to test a variety of sensors and techniques to improve water measurements in snow over different terrains, a key factor in calculating water supplies in many parts of the world, according to NASA scientists and Forest Service officials. NASA provided the test equipment, a variety of sophisticated sensors, scanners and radar, which was used aboard VXS-1’s NP-3C Orion.

SnowEx took place primarily in the Rocky Mountains of Grand Mesa, Colorado, with other operations at Senator Beck Basin, near Silverton, Colorado. The squadron operated out of Peterson AFB in Colorado Springs.

“This was a really unique opportunity for us,” said Cmdr. David Neall, VXS-1’s executive officer.

NASA has its own P-3 aircraft, but they weren’t available for this mission, according to Neall. “They (NASA) asked for our assistance, and it turned out to be great timing that we were able to support them,” he said.

The P-3 aircraft is perfect for a mission like this, said LT Denise Miller, one of the pilots for SnowEx.

It has long endurance and long range -- up to 10 hours, said Miller. We can fly it anywhere on the planet.

During the two-week campaign, scientists and forestry experts collected a variety of airborne and ground-based measurements of the snow-packed mountains. The SnowEx team included more than 100 scientists from universities and agencies across the United States, Europe and Canada. SnowEx is sponsored by the Terrestial Hydrology Program in NASA’s Earth Science Division, Washington, D.C., and managed by Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland. The U.S. Forest Services led the ground campaign in Grand Mesa and Senator Beck Basin.

Working with the Forest Service’s ground experts and NASA scientists had Miller viewing this mission as a career milestone.

“This mission was a really exciting surprise for me, for all of us,” she said.

“We helped gather really important information, how water affects farming and people’s quality of life.”

For decades, satellites have measured snowfall and the area covered by snow, but they cannot consistently measure how much water is contained in the snow over all terrains, Dr. Edward Kim, NASA’s SnowEx project scientist, explained.

That’s why information gathered from the overhead flights, combined with data from the ground team – scientists working in shifts in frigid, well-below- freezing temps and 60 mph winds -- is vitally important “to get a global picture,” he said.

This research is important for many reasons, Kim continued. “Snow is critical to society.”

According to Kim, snow’s ability to provide water, its potential as a natural hazard, problems stemming from snow droughts, water security (i.e. who has snow, and therefore, water) as well as the powdery substance’s affect on weather and climate are of high interest to scientists.

More than one-sixth of the world’s population relies on seasonal snow and glaciers for water. As much as three quarters of the water used in the western United States comes from snow.

“Nearly 80 percent of the water used in the western part of the country to sustain human life and crop irrigation starts as mountain snowfall,” said Frank McCormick, a research program manager with the U.S. Forest Service.

“Our knowledge of snow becomes increasingly important as the population of the West and the world increases,” said Karl Wetlaufer, a hydrologist with the Department of Agriculture.

Better measurements of snow are of significant interest for managers of fresh water availability, natural hazards, winter-dependent industries and ecosystem impacts. The measurements made in campaigns such as SnowEx could ultimately lead to a snow-observing satellite mission, Kim said.

VXS-1 crew members are excited about the opportunity to assist in a far-reaching endeavor.

“It’s incredible working with NASA on a large, scientific project,” said Naval Air Crewman (Avionics) 1st Class Rodney Hynes. Hynes is an inflight technician with the squadron. “I’m going to go home and tell my kids all about it.”

As the SnowEx campaign progresses through 2022, VXS-1 will continue to play a critical role in NASA’s research, said Neall.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. To play a part in testing this equipment and helping gather data that could probably guide life-changing decisions for how we operate and plan for water resources … participating in this project is unprecedented. It’s amazing to be a part of that.”

U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, Washington, D.C, is the Navy's full-spectrum corporate laboratory, conducting a broadly based multidisciplinary program of scientific research and advanced technological development directed toward maritime applications of new and improved materials, techniques, equipment, systems and ocean, atmospheric, and space sciences and related technologies.

NRL provides the advanced scientific capabilities required to bolster the United States’ position of global naval leadership. Here, in an environment where the nation’s best scientists and engineers are inspired to pursue their passion, everyone is focused on research that yields immediate and long-range applications in the defense of the United States.

NRL VXS-1's aircraft operate worldwide on extended detachments and annually log more than 600 flight hours. These aircraft are the sole airborne platforms for numerous projects such as bathymetry, electronic countermeasures, gravity mapping, and radar development research. The squadron has a flawless safety record, having amassed more than 74,000 hours of accident-free flying over a 54-year period.

VXS-1 is located at Naval Air Station, Patuxent River, Maryland.

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