$15.8 million grant to provide instruments for new UW research aircraft

(File photo, Oil City)

CASPER, Wyo. — A $15.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation will provide instrumentation on a new King Air research aircraft that the University of Wyoming will purchase.

UW is the only academic institution in the country that has a research aircraft facility dedicated to supporting the atmospheric science community, the university said in their Tuesday, Sept. 17 announcement.

“’The grant is for modifying and certifying the aircraft that UW is about to purchase, and also to develop new instrumentation for use on this aircraft, primarily for atmospheric remote sensing,’ says Bart Geerts, chair and professor in UW’s Department of Atmospheric Science.”

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The grant for the instrumentation has a larger dollar amount than the cost of the research aircraft itself.

The university’s current twin-engine tuboprop King Air aircraft is 42 years old. They paid about $1 million for the aircraft in 1977.

UW says that the Board of Trustees approved asking the State of Wyoming’s Loan and Investment Board for a $4.7 million loan to purchase a new aircraft.

“’As part of our NSF MSRI (Mid-Scale Research Infrastructure) proposal, the university made a commitment to purchase a new research aircraft, and that is expected to happen in the next few months,’ says Geerts, who is principal investigator for the grant project. ‘The loan for this purchase will be serviced through the indirect cost generated by King Air-related grants.’”

The NSF grant will support UW research over the next five years.

“’This grant is essential to the strategic vision of the Department of Atmospheric Science to build the next generation UW King Air research aircraft, with an array of state-of-the-art remote sensors,’ Geerts says. ‘This facility will be a resource for the department’s faculty and students, the UW community and for the state of Wyoming for decades to come, in ‘hot’ research areas such as air quality, fugitive emissions, wildfires, severe storms, winter weather and water availability.’”

The NSF has provided over $2 million in annual support to UW for the King Air’s research. It is part of the NSF’s Lower Atmosphere Observing Facilities program.

“The funding helps pay for the staff of 16 individuals, including engineers, technicians, two mechanics and three pilots to maintain and fly the aircraft,” the university says. “In exchange, UW provides the plane and instrumentation to NSF-funded investigators as ‘a national facility.’”

The current aircraft is equipped to study the troposphere, which is the lowest region of the earth’s atmosphere. The new instruments the NSF grant will provide will enhance those capabilities.

The university says those existing capabilities include “clear-air measurements of humidity, temperature, aerosol and 3D winds (Raman LIDAR and Doppler LIDAR)…and improved measurements of cloud and precipitation properties (dual-frequency mm-wave radar system).”

LIDAR stands for “light detection and ranging.” This technology offers “optic remote sensing…that can detect and measure cloud droplets in the atmosphere,” UW says.

“Water droplets and ice crystals are detected by multiple beams of the radar and can be used to produce dual-Doppler wind analyses,” the university continues. “Both the radar and LIDAR can provide vertical “curtain” views of cloud structure.”

The current King Air’s missions typically fly up to 28,000 feet and study “boundary layer structure, air-sea interactions, cloud and aerosol physics, troposphere profiling and atmospheric chemistry.”

The aircraft has been used to study cloud-seeding, which is a weather modification technique in which silver iodide is released into the atmosphere to facilitate ice crystal formation in clouds.

UW says cloud seeding may have applications in areas facing water shortages and to irrigate crops.

“In 2015, Geerts received a $1.15 million NSF grant and used the King Air to study how thunderstorms form at night over the southern Great Plains,” UW adds.

The aircraft has also supported other research, inlcuding projects in Antigua, Dominica, England and Finland.

“’The King Air will serve as an ideal platform for the Department of Atmospheric Science to grow its competitive research portfolio and to train the next generation of observational atmospheric scientists,’ Geerts says.”

The university provides information on research the King Air has conducted since 2004 online.