Innovation Insights: Science in paradise

November 17, 2023  - By
Innovation Insights with Richard Langley

Innovation Insights with Richard Langley

This is an introduction to the November 2023 Innovation article, “Using GNSS Phase Reflectometry on Maui’s Haleakalā”

We’ve all seen the news reports of the terrible devastation and loss of life in the town of Lahaina on the island of Maui by a wildfire this past August. Those terrible reports jarringly contrasted with happy memories of visits to Hawaii and its paradise islands. I recalled my visit some years ago to Maui in particular. My wife and I traveled all around Maui, but we particularly enjoyed the drive up to the top of Mount Haleakalā.

Rising to just over 3,000 meters, Haleakalā is a large, active (though currently dormant) shield volcano that forms about 75% of Maui. Just below its summit there is a visitor center with informative panels describing the geology of the volcano and the flora and fauna to be found on its flanks. On the drive up, for example, you can see endangered nēnē, the Hawaiian Goose, and the threatened silversword plants, which only bloom once in their lifetimes. And the sunrise and sunset views from the summit are quite beautiful.

A few hundred meters away from the visitor center is the Haleakalā High Altitude Observatory Site — a complex informally known as “Science City.” The site accommodates various optical telescopes and other instruments, including among others the 4-meter-aperture Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (the largest solar telescope in the world), a satellite laser ranging station, and the Maui Space Surveillance Complex, which consists of a suite of telescopes operated by the Department of Defense for satellite tracking.

Also at the site is an innovative system observing the ocean surface far below using the phase of GNSS signals. Not only receiving normal line-of-sight signals from satellites, this system also receives signals that are reflected by the ocean surface, a technique called GNSS reflectometry or GNSS-R. GNSS-R can be thought of as a bi-static radar, where the transmitters (the GNSS satellites) and the receiver are separated by a large distance. The receiver can be on Earth’s surface, on an aircraft or on a low-Earth-orbiting satellite. The reflected signals contain information about the surface from which they were reflected. Depending on the receiver’s location and with suitable data processing, parameters such as ground surface elevation and its variation, water level and tide height, sea state (wave height, wind speed and wind direction), soil moisture content, and even snow depth can be deduced.

Over the years, we have had a number of articles on GNSS-R in this column using different receiver platforms (April, 1999; October, 2007; October, 2009; September 2010; September 2014; and October, 2019). In this quarter’s “Innovation” column, we have an article by some members of the team who built and operate the GNSS-R system on the top of Haleakalā. They explain how the system works and some of the preliminary observations and results they have obtained. More science in paradise!

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About the Author: Richard B. Langley

Richard B. Langley is a professor in the Department of Geodesy and Geomatics Engineering at the University of New Brunswick (UNB) in Fredericton, Canada, where he has been teaching and conducting research since 1981. He has a B.Sc. in applied physics from the University of Waterloo and a Ph.D. in experimental space science from York University, Toronto. He spent two years at MIT as a postdoctoral fellow, researching geodetic applications of lunar laser ranging and VLBI. For work in VLBI, he shared two NASA Group Achievement Awards. Professor Langley has worked extensively with the Global Positioning System. He has been active in the development of GPS error models since the early 1980s and is a co-author of the venerable “Guide to GPS Positioning” and a columnist and contributing editor of GPS World magazine. His research team is currently working on a number of GPS-related projects, including the study of atmospheric effects on wide-area augmentation systems, the adaptation of techniques for spaceborne GPS, and the development of GPS-based systems for machine control and deformation monitoring. Professor Langley is a collaborator in UNB’s Canadian High Arctic Ionospheric Network project and is the principal investigator for the GPS instrument on the Canadian CASSIOPE research satellite now in orbit. Professor Langley is a fellow of The Institute of Navigation (ION), the Royal Institute of Navigation, and the International Association of Geodesy. He shared the ION 2003 Burka Award with Don Kim and received the ION’s Johannes Kepler Award in 2007.