It's high-tech amid the rust at lighthouse

To test a NASA satellite, UMBC physicists camp out on a tower in the Atlantic

October 13, 2002|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

ON THE CHESAPEAKE LIGHT TOWER - For many researchers, field work is the fun part of science, a chance to ditch stuffy labs for some exotic locale. At least, that's what Michele McCourt used to think.

Last summer the 25-year-old physicist did her field work in the Bahamas.

This year she's here on this rusty, gull poop-encrusted lighthouse 14 miles off the coast of Virginia Beach, Va.

"It's like Alcatraz," says McCourt, a graduate student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

And it's not just the sharks circling in these waters.

"It's rusty and dirty. Plus there's the occasional foghorn in the ear and the light is always on when you're trying to sleep."

Still, she and six other UMBC physicists have endured this unusual field assignment for the past eight weeks to determine whether a new $1.3 billion NASA satellite designed to study the ocean is working properly, a process known as "ground truthing."

The measurements McCourt and her colleagues are making could be the first step to more accurate long-term weather forecasts.

The project, which is due to wind up this week, is headed by UMBC physicist Wallace McMillan, who considered everything from oil derricks off the Texas coast to the Galapagos Islands before settling on the Chesapeake Light.

Commissioned in 1965 and built by the same company that constructed the Bay Bridge, it's one of four "Texas tower" lighthouses - it looks like an oil rig- in the United States.

The lighthouse sits in 34 feet of water on four enormous steel legs.

For years, a Coast Guard crew lived in its Spartan quarters, which includes seven bedrooms, a simple galley, bathroom and recreation room. But in 1980 the Coast Guard automated the lighthouse, whose powerful beam is vis- ible for 16 miles.

For the UMBC team, the location seemed nearly ideal. A 20-minute helicopter ride from Norfolk International Airport, it was distant enough to take accurate measurements of the ocean yet not so far that it would cost a fortune to shuttle students and equipment.

The tower wouldn't win any awards for decor, however. Today, the once-smooth steel walls are rust-pitted and mildew-marked. The stench of diesel fuel wafts through dark corridors.

A generator chugs noisily around the clock to power everything from the lights and laptop computers to the satellite television and scientific instruments.

When it rains - something that happened all too often during their stay, the scientists grumbled to a visitor last week - the hallways and bedrooms turn into a giant bathtub, taking on so much water that the scientists drilled a few holes in the rotting linoleum floor to drain it.

At least two UMBC scientists have lived in the lighthouse since August. To prevent "lighthouse fatigue," they rotate about every two weeks.

"I've found that's about as much as anybody can take," says McMillan, who shipped 27 barrels of diesel fuel, 500 gallons of bottled water, and two pallets of food to the tower before his team took up residence.

During downtime - or when the weather's rotten - McCourt and her colleagues play pool on a billiard table left by the Coast Guard. They've added some high-tech touches: cell phones, Nintendo games and an Internet connection.

There's also great animal watching. Terns and gulls swoop and spar below the tower's flight deck, 75 feet above the water. And that's not all.

"Hey look!" says McCourt, pointing out to sea. A sea turtle roughly the size of a child's wagon has surfaced to take a breath.

Still, life over the ocean hasn't been easy. Showers are short and irregular. During the first few weeks, flies gnawed on the scientists while stifling humidity left them "covered in a film of water," says McMillan.

The team had to abandon the tower for a week when a hurricane blew through.

Life at the lighthouse revolves around the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Aqua satellite.

Launched in May, the satellite is designed primarily as a research tool to provide the most complete understanding yet of the earth's water cycle, which in turn will provide new understanding of global climate change and the weather.

Ultimately, scientists hope the satellite - and especially a UMBC-designed instrument on board - will help decrease the number of bad weather forecasts.

The satellite passes overhead twice a day - typically around 2 o'clock in the afternoon and again at 2 a.m.

The team conducts a variety of experiments before and after each visit. These measurements will be compared to those Aqua is making from 438 miles in space.

"The big question is: Are we all measuring the same thing?" said McMillan. If so, then the satellite is working properly.

One day last week, as the overpass time approached, the scientists scurried around in preparation.

McCourt fills a weather balloon with helium. Tethered to it is a radiosonde, a paperback-sized device that transmits air temperature, humidity and pressure readings back to the team's makeshift laboratory.

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