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Aboard a grounded Nasa jet, a Yellowknife student dreams of Mars


Inside a Nasa research jet parked on Yellowknife Airport's tarmac, Aiden Rylott set a course for Mars.

The 17-year-old, touring the aircraft with a Sir John Franklin High School class on Monday, said the experience brought him closer to his dream career with the US space agency.

"For the last few years I've really been looking toward space for my career. Nasa is probably close to the leader of the space race to Mars," Rylott told Cabin Radio.

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"When I graduate university, everyone is going to be looking toward Mars."

On Monday, Rylott had the chance to meet boreal fire specialist Liz Hoy, research pilot Trent Kingery, and systems engineer David Austerberry, among others.

Hoy, Kingery, and Austerberry are part of the ABoVE project, Nasa's nickname for its Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment, which looks into potential drivers of climate change in Alaska and western Canada.

Nasa's Gulfstream jet makes routine passes over the Northwest Territories, using radar mounted beneath the aircraft to measure soil moisture, permafrost, and a range of other variables.

"What we can do with that data is look at how the ecosystem is changing," said Hoy. "We can see where areas might be more vulnerable to things like fire disturbance."

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ABoVE, which began in 2015, has an eight to 10-year lifespan. So far, said Hoy, the project's data suggests the way wildfires burn is changing.

"You're more likely to see lightning strikes … and you're also seeing younger stands burning, as they are drier," she said. "Then you're burning more deeply into the soil layer and burning 'legacy carbon,' carbon that normally stays put from fire cycle to fire cycle.

"That is releasing more carbon into the atmosphere, which can result in more warming and even more fires. It's a vicious feedback cycle.

"And as the permafrost starts to thaw, you're making more of that organic carbon available to be released into the atmosphere. That leads to more warming overall and the soil is even drier, and even more able to burn."

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ABoVE scientist Peter Griffith speaks to Yellowknife students inside Nasa's Gulfstream jet

ABoVE scientist Peter Griffith speaks to Yellowknife students inside Nasa's Gulfstream jet. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio

Systems engineer David Austerberry showcases the radar module mounted beneath the aircraft

Systems engineer David Austerberry showcases the radar module mounted beneath the aircraft. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio

Students Isabelle Boucher and Amelie Wood inside the cockpit of the Nasa jet

Students Isabelle Boucher and Amelie Wood inside the cockpit of the Nasa jet. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio

Data from ABoVE is shared with the Canadian federal government, NWT government, and other northern scientists. Nasa is working on updated models using the most recently acquired data, and expects to produce information like maps of permafrost thaw for public consumption before the project ends.

Austerberry, greeting students on Monday while the aircraft awaited a replacement part, said: "Every once in a while, you get these opportunities. It's a lot of fun.

"It reminds you when you were that age, on the track that brought you here."

More: Sahtu students prepare to protect the land with Nasa's help

Rylott, a Grade 12 student, said of the tour: "It's been super-interesting. For me, it was really important to talk to people about how to get into the field. I've had some really good advice.

"I would like to work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory," said Rylott, naming the Pasadena, California facility where Austerberry is based.

"Ever since I went to high school and took my first physics class, I got super-into it. As a kid I would always be looking at the stars, the northern lights. Once I found out that was something that's actually attainable I was like, let's do it.

"My goal is to have something I've worked on go into space."

Students outside the Nasa jet

Students outside the Nasa jet. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio

Nasa's Gulfstream jet rests on the tarmac at Yellowknife Airport

Nasa's Gulfstream jet rests on the tarmac at Yellowknife Airport. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio

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