NAS studies ice crystal formation in the atmosphere to improve flight safety

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With the goal of improving aircraft engine design and increasing aviation safety, NASA is studying the formation of high-altitude ice crystals through its DC-8 air lab. The study is part of NASA’s High Ice Water Content (HIWC) research activity. The team of researchers is conducting a flight campaign that involves flying through the heart of major thunderstorms to understand how ice crystals affect aircraft engine performance. They flew in July off the southeast coast of the United States and the Gulf of Mexico.

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NASA has also conducted such research campaigns before. But this time, the researchers focused on man-made aerosols. “For this campaign, we’re doing something different. Our priority is to operate in regions with man-made aerosols to better understand their effect on the development of high concentrations of ice crystals,” said Thomas Ratvasky, HIWC principal investigator at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.

Aerosols can be formed both naturally and from man-made sources. Industrial emissions, fossil fuel combustion and agricultural activities are some sources of aerosols. Once released into the atmosphere, aerosols can be carried across the ocean. They tend to interact with bonding systems and there is a theory that aerosols can increase the concentration of ice crystals in thunderstorms.

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These ice crystals pose a danger to the aircraft flying through the thunderstorms by hindering the performance and power of the jet engines. In addition, they can also affect the instruments equipped in the aircraft and can lead to erroneous and inaccurate measurements.

So researchers want to study aerosols and collect more data that could help improve flight safety standards.

“We want to ensure that high aerosol environments are represented in this dataset. Many of the current engines didn’t have to demonstrate how well they could fly in these ice crystal conditions, but future engines will,” Ratvasky says.

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