Preparing For Antarctic Flights in the California Desert

By Keith Cowing
Press Release
October 7, 2014
Filed under , , , ,
Preparing For Antarctic Flights in the California Desert
Icebridge testing

At first glance a dry lake bed in the southern California desert seems like the last place to prepare to study ice.

But on Oct. 2, 2014, NASA’s Operation IceBridge carried out a ground-based GPS survey of the El Mirage lake bed in California’s Mojave Desert. Members of the IceBridge team are currently at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center, preparing instruments aboard the DC-8 research aircraft for flights over Antarctica.

Part of this preparation involves test flights over the desert, where researchers verify their instruments are working properly. El Mirage serves as a prime location for testing the mission’s laser altimeter, the Airborne Topographic Mapper, because the lake bed has a flat surface and reflects light similarly to snow and ice.

This photo, taken shortly after the survey, shows the GPS-equipped survey vehicle and a stationary GPS station (left of the vehicle) on the lake bed with the constellation Ursa Major in the background. By driving the vehicle in parallel back and forth lines over a predefined area and comparing those GPS elevation readings with measurements from the stationary GPS, researchers are able to build an elevation map that will be used to precisely calibrate the laser altimeter for ice measurements.

Credit: NASA / John Sonntag

Operation IceBridge is scheduled to begin research flights over Antarctica on Oct. 15, 2014. The mission will be based out of Punta Arenas, Chile, until Nov. 23.

For more information about IceBridge, visit:

For blog posts about IceBridge’s previous test flights over the Mojave Desert and GPS ground surveys, visit:

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.