Hampton University
Hampton University Professor Leads Team That Will Soon Launch NASA Satellite Instrument
02/15/2017 - #152

HAMPTON, Va. – As SAGE III ISS, the latest technology in satellite ozone profiling, prepares to launch at the Kennedy Space Center on its journey to the ISS this Saturday, February 18, Dr. M. Patrick McCormick couldn’t be more proud. Professor McCormick, Co-Director of Hampton University’s Department of Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, is the Principal Investigator behind NASA’s SAM II, SAGE, SAGE II, SAGE III-Meteor, and SAGE III-ISS satellite experiments. He created the acronym “SAGE”.  In the mid-70s when he proposed the first SAGE mission to NASA HQ, he knew he needed a name for his proposal that would be easy to remember and meaningful. The lauch of the SAGE III ISS marks the fourth satellite/instrument that HU has in orbit.

“You need a cool acronym,” said McCormick. While on an aircraft coming back from a NASA HQ meeting in Washington, DC. and thinking about a new acronym, it came to him. “I’ll call it SAGE,” he said. The acronym not only sounded cool, it has dual meaning. SAGE stands for Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment. The term “sage” is also defined as a profoundly wise person. The logo reflects these dual meanings, with a robed scholarly man holding his text books and staff of wisdom overseeing the measurements of the Earth’s atmosphere.

In the 70s, and early 80s, atmospheric scientists began to understand that chlorofluorocarbons and other gases might deplete the ozone high in our atmosphere. Upper atmosphere ozone protects us from solar rays that are harmful to human life on Earth.

In the mid-to-late 80s, scientists scrambled to understand why the ozone was drastically reduced in the Antarctic springtime, a phenomenon that became known as the ozone hole. Fortunately SAM II, launched in 1978, was making measurements over both the Arctic and the Antarctic. During this time, McCormick, using SAM II data, was publishing papers on unusual clouds present in the dark winter stratosphere. He ‘coined’ the name Polar Stratospheric Clouds or PSCs to describe these clouds. As it turned out, PSCs are necessary in order for an ozone hole to form.

On February 18th, a fifth generation instrument of the NASA series, SAGE III, is scheduled to launch for placement aboard the International Space Station. Being a fifth-generation instrument, it is significantly more complex and capable than its predecessors. SAGE III-ISS can measure, with unprecedented vertical resolution (less than a kilometer), atmospheric constituents over the Earth’s atmosphere on a near-global basis. Its main data measurements include ozone, water vapor, nitrogen dioxide, aerosols and clouds, but it will also measure a number of gases that it was not capable of detecting before like bromine monoxide and nitrogen trioxide. It can also make observations at lower and higher altitudes and with greater measurement flexibility than its predecessor instruments. Examples include the ability to change its spectral channels and its mode of operation from solar to lunar measurements.

SAGE III-ISS promises to yield a significant step forward in understanding atmospheric processes and change. Prior SAGE-series multi-decade ozone and aerosol data sets have become the international standard for accuracy and stability, and are recognized as being important contributors for understanding ozone trends and for predicting climate change.

SAGE III-ISS is a collaborative effort between HU and scientists and engineers at NASA’s LaRC, where the ‘heavy lifting” as McCormick says, has occurred over the past 39 years. The entire legacy instrument series from SAM II on Nimbus 7, launched in 1978, to SAGE I launched in 1979, to SAGE II launched in 1984, to the first SAGE III that was launched in 2001, as well as a second SAGE III were all built by Ball Aerospace and Technologies in Boulder, CO. under contract to LaRC, and under the close scrutiny of LaRC engineers and scientists. A second SAGE III instrument was built and tested, but due to a lack of funding for a satellite opportunity in just the right orbit, it was put into storage at LaRC until the ISS opportunity when the NASA Administrator decided that more science should be performed from the ISS platform. In addition, considerable science community support for flying a SAGE instrument was made known to NASA. Soon, funding was provided to refurbish SAGE III for flight aboard the ISS platform. The refurbishment of SAGE III-ISS was accomplished at LaRC with help from Ball. In some cases retired NASA and Ball engineers were brought back together to accomplish portions of the refurbishment.

McCormick’s greatest satisfaction lies in seeing three of his graduate students involved in the project. Drs. Charles Hill and Kevin Leavor each received their Ph.D. from HU under McCormick’s tutelage, and both now work for NASA LaRC on the SAGE III-ISS project. Dr. Hill worked on data from the SAGE III instrument launched aboard the METEOR 3M spacecraft (Russia provided the METEOR 3M spacecraft). The mission provided data for his dissertation research which pointed out ways the SAGE III instrument could be improve and how new measurements could be added. When hired by LaRC, Hill immediately began working with LaRC scientists and engineers on the refurbishment of the second SAGE III instrument. Dr. Leavor has specialized on improving the operational computer codes for the project. McCormick’s current senior graduate student, Robert Damadeo, a LaRC scientist, is working on his Ph.D. dissertation at HU. McCormick also noted that the technology for the next generation in this series of satellite instruments, SAGE IV, is being developed by Damadeo and Hill.

“The future is in good hands” states McCormick with a broad smile.

McCormick spent 30 years as a scientist at NASA LaRC after receiving his M.S. and Ph. D. at the College of William and Mary. For the last 20 years he has been a professor at HU helping to build a graduate program in atmospheric and planetary sciences.

McCormick leaves Friday for Kennedy Space Center where that afternoon, as Principal Investigator, he will lead a science team meeting. The team is made up of scientists from throughout the US that have been helping to prepare NASA for the science utilization of the data.

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