Lance struggling to return ‘home’ after successful hookup with space case

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As scientists, they’re probably aware of how achieving a contact high can be followed by the letdown of being left out in the cold.

The Lance research vessel achieved a literal high point of its nearly three-month-old mission in the sea ice north of Svalbard by coordinating a simultaneous check of conditions with a flyover conducted by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

The rendezvous will provide researchers with additional supporting data for their respective studies.

“It was about a year of ‘I know that you’re out there, I’m going to ask you on a date, I promise I’m going to ask you,'” said Jackie Richter-Menge, co-leader of NASA’s Operation IceBridge project, in a press release issued by the agency. “Then the time for the date comes and it becomes more of a rapid-fire, detailed conversation.”

First, of course, they have to meet each other, which turned out to be something of a challenge resembling a blind date.

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Researchers from the Lance expedition prepare a survey field on an ice floe for NASA’s Operation IceBridge’s overflight by marking it with plastic bags and orange poles to resemble a runway. Photo by Gunnar Spreen / Norwegian Polar Institute.

“We were probably about one minute – four miles – away from the ship when we spotted it, and we had a little time to react to it,” said John Sonntag, IceBridge’s field team leader. “But the survey line near the ship, which was our real target, was much harder to see than the ship itself. The Norwegian field team did a huge amount of labor to set it up, to make it look for the pilots a bit like a runway, but still, from 1,500 feet up and two to three nautical miles away, that was very hard to see.”

IceBridge is NASA’s biannual airborne survey of polar sea and land ice, and its March 19 flight that passed above the northeast coast of Greenland before reaching the Lance was the inaugural flight of this year’s project.

The Lance is at the midpoint of a planned six-month expedition where the Norwegian Polar Institute vessel is frozen into the sea ice studying its progress “from cradle to grave” in order to develop more accurate monitoring and prediction methods. Scientists from 10 countries are participating in what is being hailed as one of the institute’s most ambitious projects ever.

The ship and crew have encountered several difficulties since departing Longyearbyen on Jan. 11, including being pushed out of the ice when the vessel drifted too far south. But with the ship now trying to return to Longyearbyen during Easter for a crew change, participants are discovering “getting out of the ice will not be easy,” according to the project’s official blog.

“Due to wind conditions, the ice is compact, and progress is rather slow, but with some skill and patience she will eventually make it out all right,” wrote Harald Steen, the expedition’s leader.

In addition to a new crew and group of  scientists, an exchange of equipment will occur since some is in need of repair while new instruments are needed for different types of data collection scheduled to take place during the second half of the expedition.

“The upcoming legs will also see an increased effort on studying the effect of solar radiation and the fate of the ecosystem, using remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), drones, divers and airplanes,” Steen wrote.

Turbulent weather during the days before the NASA flyover allowed the departing scientists to spot new cracks in floes followed by new ice development that showed an “enormous impact on the energy balance and the biogeochemistry of our surroundings,” he noted.