LVIS integration and test flight: mission accomplished!

LVIS opens the doors to remote terrain 3D measurements onboard the Global Hawk unmanned aircraft.

On June 20, 2013, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) and Sigma Space Corp. successfully completed the maiden test flight of the Land Vegetation and Ice Sensor (LVIS) onboard NASA’s Global Hawk high-altitude, unmanned research aircraft.  Following a month-long period of integration and test activities with the instrument onboard the aircraft at NASA Dryden Flight Research Center (DFRC), the Global Hawk took off from Edwards Air Force Base in southern California’s Mojave Desert at sunrise.  During the 6-hour flight in the Edwards range at altitudes in excess of 60,000 feet, Goddard and Sigma Space team members successfully exercised LVIS subsystem and data acquisition algorithms, collecting over 5 hours of science data.

The Land Vegetation and Ice Sensor is a medium/high-altitude wide-swath laser altimeter that has, for over a decade, demonstrated state-of-the-art performance in terrain mapping and altimetry measurements including vegetation structure and topography of land, oceans, ice sheets, and sea ice.  LVIS, originally designed and built at NASA GSFC, has flown and operated onboard a variety of manned aircraft since 1997.  The infrared light transmitted by the laser altimeter penetrates forestry in support of territorial ecology studies and enables surface topography measurements for solid earth and cryospheric applications.  In recent years, LVIS has primarily supported Operation IceBridge activities, including deployments to the Arctic and Antarctic on manned aircraft such as the NASA DFRC DC-8.

Supporting NASA GSFC, Sigma Space Corp. led the development of an advanced version of LVIS for high-altitude operations onboard the Global Hawk unmanned aircraft.  Sigma provided the optical, mechanical, thermal and electrical infrastructure and hardware, environmental and pressure enclosures, aircraft mounting structures, and electrical control and data acquisition systems for the sensor.  GSFC and Sigma Space personnel fully integrated and aligned the instrument, including extensive thermal/vacuum testing and validation activities prior to integration and flight-testing of the sensor onboard the Global Hawk in June.  In time, this high-altitude version of LVIS will provide high quality data sets of surface topography in support of calibration and validation efforts for the ICESat2 and DESDynI science products, and provide regional data sets in a cost-effective manner to enable new science applications.


“This is an exciting time for the science community,” said Sigma Space Corp.’s Steve Mitchell, systems engineer for the LVIS instrument.  “The long duration offered by the Global Hawk, upwards of 30 hours at altitudes in excess of 65,000 feet, combined with the wide-swath scanning and precise range measurement capabilities of LVIS, will enable terrain measurements of remote areas previously unreachable by manned aircraft.  The successful June test flight of LVIS has opened the door for a new realm of scientific exploration.”

Share this post: