One of NASA's high-flying WB-57Fs, which can be configured to carry all number of sensors and other systems in various payload bays, nose extensions, and underwing pods, and is often used to support U.S. military missile tests, touched down at Osan Air Base in South Korea earlier today. The jet presence in the region had already drawn significant attention on social media as it transited through Japan yesterday. Though its arrival comes amid a number of flashpoints in East Asia, including growing concerns about the potential for a new North Korean nuclear test and a spike in tensions between the United States and China over Taiwan, the aircraft is currently on a purely scientific mission.
The WB-57F, which carries the U.S. civil registration code N926NA, left Ellington Field Joint Reserve Base in Texas for the Korean Peninsula on July 21. The aircraft made stops at Joint Base Lewis–McChord in Washington State, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska, the remote Adak Airport on the island of the same name in Alaska's Aleutian Islands chain, and Misawa Air Base in Japan along the way.
N926NA is currently scheduled to begin conducting flights as part of the Asian Summer Monsoon Chemical and Climate Impact Project, or ACCLIP, on Friday. A Gulfstream V business jet, currently registered as N677F, which is operated by the National Science Foundation (NSF) sponsored National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), is also participating in the ACCLIP. NASA and NSF/NCAR are leading the project as a joint effort. The U.S. Navy's Office of Naval Research (ONR) and the U.S. Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), along with organizations in Europe and Asia, are part of the team, as well.
The "two research aircraft will allow a team of international scientists to study how the Asian summer monsoon – one of the largest and most important meteorological patterns in the world – affects atmospheric chemistry and global climate," a news item that NCAR published on its website earlier this month explains. "While the monsoon is most often associated with the deluge of moisture it brings to the Asian continent, the ACCLIP research team is not focused on the rain that comes down. Instead, they’re interested in what the powerful circulation of the monsoon pulls back up. Since the monsoon occurs over some of the regions in the world with the worst air quality, scientists think a wide range of pollutants may get sucked high into the atmosphere. The resulting redistribution of chemicals – and their reactions with one another – can have a significant impact on the climate."
"In recent decades, satellites have revealed that the monsoon creates a distinct layer of chemicals about 10 miles above the Earth, but we know very little about its composition and evolution," Laura Pan, a scientist at NCAR and one of ACCLIP's principal investigators, added in a statement. "ACCLIP will give us an opportunity to sample what’s there, but we know that whatever its composition, it connects to the climate."
To carry out the ACCLIP flights, N926NA is currently carrying an array of different scientific instruments and a satellite communications suite from Inmarsat. The instrument packages – 16 in total – are contained inside the aircraft's nose, in a payload bay under the central fuselage, in portions of the wing, and in four separate underwing pods. These systems will allow the jet, which can fly at altitudes of up to 60,000 feet, to gather data on various chemicals in the air, as well as a host of atmospheric conditions.
Most of the instruments, the bulk of which are installed on modular pallets with black exteriors that slot into the fuselage payload bay, are largely hidden from view. However, the Particle Analysis By Laser Mass Spectrometry (PALMS) system, which is used to separate various particles from the air and analyze their chemical composition, gives the aircraft a very distinct look because of the probe that juts out the front.
A full list of the instruments installed on the aircraft, as well as basic descriptions of their function, can be seen below:
The flights as part of the ACCLIP field campaign had originally been scheduled to occur in 2020, but were delayed due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Actual work to configure the WB-57F for these sorties, and a test flight campaign to ensure everything worked safely and soundly, began last year. That was all done at Ellington Field under the supervision of NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Though N926NA will be flying from South Korea over the next few weeks in support of this scientific effort, its configuration for these flights does underscore the highly reconfigurable nature of NASA's trio of WB-57Fs. These aircraft previously served with the U.S. Air Force as RB-57F high-altitude spy planes, which General Dynamics had originally created by putting various older B-57 variants through an intensive conversion program, starting in the 1960s.
As already noted, NASA WB-57Fs have supported missile testing, as well as missile defense work, among other missions, for the U.S. military in the past. One of these jets was notably employed as a testbed for the Air Force's Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) communications gateway payload, as you can read more about in this past War Zone feature.
ACCLIP is one example of a multitude of other scientific efforts NASA's WB-57Fs had supported in the past, too. This isn't the first trip by one of these aircraft to the Pacific region, either. In 2016, one of these jets supported a project that was somewhat similar to ACCLIP, called the Pacific Oxidants, Sulfur, Ice, Dehydration, and Convection, or POSIDON, which also involved flights from the U.S. island territory of Guam in the Western Pacific to gather data on "chemical transport into the upper atmosphere."
At present, NASA says that N926NA is scheduled to conduct flights from Osan through September 6. It will then return to the United States and be 'deconfigured' so as to be ready for whatever new mission might come along next.
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