The Sierra went down over the Arctic Ocean, about 60 miles from the northernmost tip of North America. One moment the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) with its 20-foot wingspan was up in the sky, gathering “hard” data over frozen terrain to help climate scientists in comfortable offices make predictions about climate change. The next moment, the little aircraft was gone.
“Just as I walked into the ground control station,” said Darin Desilets, a Sandia researcher at the barren U.S. Air Force outpost known as Oliktok Point, “a gentleman from NASA was calling in to air traffic controllers in Deadhorse, ‘Flight terminated.'” Deadhorse is a nearby settlement on Alaska’s North Slope.
The Sierra’s mission was focused on monitoring something called “the sea/ice margin,” where the solid ice of the frozen north thaws into open sea. This line moves with the seasons and changes each year.