Indiana University data experts play key role in NASA polar project

Dec. 10, 2013


When scientists with NASA’s Operation IceBridge mission fly over the Earth’s poles gathering ice sheet data, they can focus solely on their science and not the computing systems that make it possible, thanks to Indiana University IT experts.

For the past five years, IU’s Research Technologies group has provided the field data management, processing and archival storage for IceBridge, the largest airborne survey of Earth's polar ice. Twice a year, Operation IceBridge missions fly over Antarctica or Greenland to collect data about how glaciers strike the bedrock and how that physical interaction affects the ice sheet -- and global climate change.

For each expedition, IU data experts don their parkas and fly to the ends of the Earth to take care of this important data in person.

"Usually we’re pretty far removed from the lab or the clinical trial. We mainly work in the IU Data Center to provide data storage, processing and support for IU researchers who want to run their data on our systems," said Rich Knepper, manager of IU’s campus bridging and research infrastructure team within Research Technologies. "But, with IceBridge, our field engineers are right next to the scientists in the aircraft as they’re collecting the data. It’s exciting to be so involved in the research process."

The most recent Operation IceBridge expedition, conducted from the beginning of November until Dec. 4, was based out of McMurdo Station in Antarctica. IU field engineer Justin Miller went along to manage the Forward Observer tool, an IU-created system designed specifically to allow in-flight data capturing and processing.

New this trip, NASA flew the P-3 aircraft out of the McMurdo base. Previous South Pole trips were based in Chile and needed the larger DC-8 for the research flights. The smaller plane required IU to build a scaled-down version of Forward Observer that could still collect the same massive data sets.

Each Operation IceBridge mission lasts for several weeks and consists of near-daily flights over vast swaths of ice-covered landscapes, collecting huge amounts of data -- about 3 to 4 terabytes each. This time around, Miller worked on more than 12 TB of ice sheet data. All the ice sheet data is then stored and archived in the IU Data Center in Bloomington.

"IU Research Technologies has made a name for itself as the place to go for innovative data management and storage solutions, and we are pleased to be an IceBridge partner," said Matt Link, director of systems for Research Technologies. "It’s very gratifying to see our work used to help scientists interpret their climate change data, in real time in the field as well as when researchers return."