Scientific jet measures atmospheric chemistry

24 January 2024
CQU Geography Dr Michael Hewson in front of the High Altitude – Long Range (HALO) aircraft
Senior lecturer in Geography Dr Michael Hewson in front of the High Altitude – Long Range (HALO) aircraft

By Isis Symes

Those looking up at the sky may have recently witnessed an unusual plane flying over Cairns.

Their eyes aren’t playing tricks on them – throughout this month and next, the Max Planck Institute of Chemistry from Mainz, Germany, along with scientific partners including CQUniversity researchers - are measuring atmospheric molecular quantities in the maritime continent using a large business jet that’s jam-packed with probes and associated instruments. 

CQUniversity’s senior lecturer in Geography Dr Michael Hewson, along with Aviation expert Professor Doug Drury are participating in the research project by observing satellite remote sensing of the atmosphere, and providing insights into Australian weather patterns.

“Water is life – something we know well. But to form clouds and rain, you need particles in the atmosphere, and particles of a certain size. Where do these particles come from and how are they formed? There is much known, and much yet to know, about the atmospheric chemistry that makes precipitation,” Dr Hewson explained.

“We currently have a long-range, high-flying aircraft, a Gulfstream V - provided by the German Research Institute for Aviation and Space Flight – that is currently based at the Cairns Airport and is conducting high altitude atmospheric tests in the Southern Hemisphere to help answer those questions,” he said.

Research instruments inside the High Altitude – Long Range (HALO) aircraft
Inside the scientific jet

The project, named Chemistry of the Atmosphere Field Experiment in the Pacific (CAFE-Pacific) will see the jet spend more than 100 flight hours in the air to gain fundamental insights into natural tropospheric chemistry and aerosol processes in terrestrial and marine environments in the tropics.

The measurements will serve as the basis for computer models that depict the chemical processes and atmospheric feedback mechanisms of the Earth system and that are intended to predict future climate developments.

Professor Drury said CQU Aviation was working with Aerospace Gateway to Industry to provide an opportunity for local high school faculties with an interest in aviation, to attend a Cafe-Pacific briefing.

“The session will provide information on the STEM aspect of the research that might be of interest to their STEM/aviation students,” Professor Drury said.

Over the past two years, the Max Planck Institute of Chemistry team of about 50 scientists, technicians and aircrew has been to Brazil and Africa to conduct similar research. 

Find out more about the CAFE-Pacific project

The High Altitude – Long Range (HALO) aircraft in a hanger in Cairns
The High Altitude – Long Range (HALO) aircraft in a hanger in Cairns