Trapped in the Arctic ice

How Raytheon's spacefaring sensor helped lead a fishing vessel to safety

Kiska vessel bow

In 2013, the Kiska Sea became surrounded by ice in the Bering Sea while fishing for the elusive snow crab.

When the crab fishing vessel Kiska Sea ventured through rough weather into the far northern arctic floes of the Bering Sea, it was seeking a million-dollar payday. But that hunt in 2013 gave the crew more than they had bargained for.

Near-hurricane-force winds had pushed a massive ice pack southward, swallowing the ship’s crab pots whole and threatening the vessel itself. The Kiska Sea found itself surrounded by ice with no clear way out.

“I have never seen icebergs of that magnitude,” said Kiska Sea Captain Mike Wilson. “I made a call to the National Weather Service Ice Desk. It was a call for help. There was no other option. They knew I was the only one crazy enough to try to be there in that weather.”

The NWS turned to detailed imagery showing the ship’s lights and surrounding ice pack, captured by a sateliite-based, Raytheon-made sensor package called the Visible Infrared Radiometer Suite. Those images revealed a course to safety for Captain Wilson and the crew of the Kiska Sea.

Orbiting the Earth 14 times per day, the sensitive VIIRS sensors map weather and environmental conditions around the world.

“Our [ship's] radar will only pick up for so much distance, and that could have potentially led us to worse trouble,” Wilson said. “With the satellite, they pinpointed the leads to get us out of there. There were a couple of places where I had to punch through the ice slowly, but the Kiska Sea is built like a battleship, and as long as I stayed on the course and changed positions as NWS recommended, I was able to navigate out.”

Raytheon’s Common Ground System, a powerful network of computers and antennas dispersed around the world, processes VIIRS data  for agencies like NWS, NOAA, NASA, the Department of Defense and others.

“People often think of VIIRS as just a weather satellite, but its capabilities go well beyond weather forecasting,” said Wallis Laughrey, vice president, Raytheon Space Systems. “If you’re onboard a ship at sea, especially in the Polar Regions, you want VIIRS in your corner. VIIRS essentially used stray light to show NWS critical details of the clouds and sea ice and edge around the Kiska Sea.”

Using its day-night infrared band, VIIRS can even capture high-resolution detailed imagery in moonless conditions, like the night when the Kiska Sea was trapped.

“We could have been in a pretty sticky situation if we couldn’t get out of that ice,” said Kiska Sea First Mate Justin Riley. “Eyes can only see so far. We’d have kept going and who knows where we would have ended up. All of our lives would have been at risk without NWS guiding us out.”

After the experience, the captain doesn’t push the envelope anymore.

“I don’t stay up there in the ice as long as I used to," Wilson said. "I don’t want to take the chances that I used to. The satellite is a great tool to have at your disposal. Hopefully, you don’t need it, but’s nice to know that there is someone to call if you need help.”

Last Updated: 02/14/2018