Southeast Student Goes to New Heights with NASA Student Airborne Research Program

ColtenPeterson_WTDWedSoutheast Missouri State University senior Colten Peterson of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, is spending his summer at NASA’s Student Airborne Research Program (SARP).

During the eight-week internship program, Peterson has been given hands-on experience and opportunities with NASA’s Earth system science.

“My experience here has allowed me to work with NASA scientists and dive into a very interesting research field,” said Peterson, a double major in physics and engineering physics, mechanical applications. “I have gained many new skills, and my knowledge of earth science has increased significantly. SARP helps us understand why studying our planet is a high priority, and I believe that the research I am involved in is beneficial to humanity.”

The first two weeks of the program were spent at the NASA Armstrong Flight Research Hanger 703 in Palmdale, California, where Peterson got to fly onboard the NASA DC-8 aircraft, a highly specialized research aircraft.

“Flying in the DC-8 was a great experience,” said Peterson. “The aircraft was completely stripped out and turned into a flying laboratory.”

The research aircraft studies Earth system processes, calibration and validation of space-borne observations, and prototyping instruments for possible satellite missions.

“It flew at 1,000 feet for most of our flight and we were able to walk around and talk to different scientists about their instruments,” he said. “The plane performed aerial maneuvers like descending spirals, and we could actually stand up when they did it. At times the flight was very turbulent, but that was also a very exciting part of it.”

Aboard the NASA DC-8 aircraft, Southeast student Colten Peterson observes NASA scientists use an instrument called a Lidar, which uses lasers to measure components of the atmosphere during their flight.

Aboard the NASA DC-8 aircraft, Peterson observes NASA scientists use an instrument called a Lidar, which uses lasers to measure components of the atmosphere during their flight.

The first two weeks of lectures and interaction with scientists was important because it helped him decide what he wanted the focus of his research to be the final weeks of the program, Peterson said.

He joined the Ocean Remote Sensing team to study different processes in the coastal waters of California. The team uses satellite and airborne optical sensor data, analyzing the light reflected from the water to determine a variety of physical and biological processes.

With his team, Peterson embarked on a scientific expedition in the Santa Barbara Channel to gather data in the water. He used many different instruments to measure optical properties of the water, and took water samples to measure components like chlorophyll concentration.

For the remaining six weeks, Peterson and his team have been analyzing the data they collected. Peterson is in the final stages of his research investigating how different atmospheric interference processes affect the accuracy in determining the concentration of chlorophyll-a in the waters of Monterey Bay.

“By accurately measuring chlorophyll-a concentration from space, we can observe phytoplankton activity on a global scale,” he said. “These organisms are important, because they produce 50 percent of the oxygen that we breathe.”

Peterson processes water samples for his team's research.

During a scientific expedition, Peterson processes water samples for chlorophyll concentration research.

Peterson used software to remove noise in the remote sensing reflectance signal that was obtained by an airborne sensor to determine the chlorophyll-a concentrations. He then compared the cleaned data to the information taken on the water.

“When I convert the reflectance signal to chlorophyll-a concentration using a computer algorithm, I can determine which aspects of atmospheric correction are important when determining chlorophyll-a concentration,” he said.

Once his research project is complete, he will present his findings and data to the other interns and NASA scientists.

Being a part of NASA’s SARP is an amazing opportunity to perform research and develop solutions relevant to the planet and society, Peterson said.

“Performing hands on research is very challenging, but it is also incredibly rewarding,” he said. “It is a process in which you must learn a great deal of information, develop new skills and produce a novel solution to a problem.”

The collaboration with NASA program directors, scientists and university researchers has helped him not only be successful during SARP but propelled him toward his future career goals as well, he said.

“This amazing opportunity will help me to pursue a career in earth and planetary sciences,” he said. “I will use the skills I have developed and the experience that I have gained to help pave my path to a PhD. My ultimate goal is to work for NASA and pursue an exciting career studying either the solar system or our own planet.”