WE HAVE LIFTOFF – Air New Zealand takes NASA climate science mission to new heights

Aviation Environmental

Air New Zealand’s daily operations are now helping to enable new research into climate change, with a ground-breaking approach to collecting data for the global scientific community.

In a world-first, Air New Zealand flight NZ8844 took off this morning from Christchurch to Nelson carrying a NASA next-generation satellite receiver.

Using direct and reflected GPS and Galileo signals, the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) receiver will collect unique environmental data to better predict storms and enable new climate change research.

Air New Zealand is the first passenger airline in the world to join a NASA earth mission, working together since 2020 on the design, installation and certification of the receiver onboard one of its Q300 aircraft.

Air New Zealand Chief Operational Integrity and Safety Officer Captain David Morgan says climate change is a shared challenge and the airline does not shy away from its responsibilities to address it.

“With a network stretching from Kerikeri to Invercargill and flying at an altitude of around 16,000 feet, the Q300 was the perfect aircraft to pilot this mission.”

“Flying much closer to the land and sea than NASA’s satellites, our aircraft can collect a daily feed of high-resolution, high-quality data, with significant potential for the science community.”

The University of Auckland has established a Science Payload Operations Centre to receive and process the data in what could become New Zealand’s largest source of environmental data. Project Lead, Professor Delwyn Moller, says the collaboration will put Kiwi scientists at the forefront of this emerging field.

“The data produced by this collaboration will be made publicly available, opening up a range of research possibilities, with many potential uses – from flood risk management to agriculture and resource planning.

“Air New Zealand’s commitment to the project’s success will hopefully inspire other airlines around the world to use their own aircraft for the benefit of science.”

The data collected in flight will also feed into NASA's Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS). Dr Will McCarty, NASA's CYGNSS Program Scientist in the agency's Earth Science Division, says the data from Air New Zealand flights will extend the CYGNSS mission to monitor environmental changes over land.

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

“The receiver that Air New Zealand is flying has advanced capabilities with the potential to be used for future space bound missions, so we’re excited to test these out.”

The project to fly a next-generation GNSS-R receiver on Air New Zealand’s aircraft to advance earth observation has been gifted the name Rongowai, combining the Māori words rongo (to sense) and wai (water). 

For video of David Morgan, Delwyn Moller, b-roll footage, and the original announcement of the project in 2020


Note to editors:

  • 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.
  • 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 advanced features of the next-generation receiver flying on Air New Zealand’s Q300 include: the capability to receive reflections from up to 20 satellites (CYGNSS can receive up to four), compatibility with GPS and Galileo (E.U.) satellites (as opposed to only GPS), and polarimetric capability which may help for vegetation characterisation and interpretation of more complex terrestrial scattering
  • 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 receiver installed on Air New Zealand’s Q300 was developed by the University of Michigan for NASA's Earth Science Technology Office. 
  • The Science Payload Operation Centre at the University of Auckland has been 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 will also support field work for these purposes.