NASA's Unmanned Global Hawk Aircraft Conducts Ground Breaking Science


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NASA's Unmanned Global Hawk Aircraft Conducts Ground Breaking Science

Shane Nolan

June 12, 2010 - NASA's unmanned Global Hawk aircraft, developed by Northrop Grumman Corporation, completed four science flights over the Pacific Ocean during the month of April.

The flights were part of the Global Hawk Pacific (GloPac) mission, a joint project between NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), with Northrop Grumman support. 

The GloPac mission flights revolutionized the collection of data in the stratosphere. Fitted with 11 science instruments, Global Hawk acquired and transmitted data that has never before been accessible through either manned flights or satellites. Flights reached up to 65,000 feet where information was collected from the air as well as the water and polar ice below.


Data from the science instruments were downloaded in real-time to NASA Dryden Flight Research Center where scientists were able to analyze the data, and if necessary, ask the Global Hawk pilot to adjust the flight path to optimize data collection.

Flights during the GloPac project ranged from north of the Arctic Circle, over polar ice, down to Hawaii near the equator. NASA Global Hawk completed 82.5 flight hours, with one particular flight lasting 28.6 hours, eight hours of which was spent north of Alaska over the polar ice. Additionally, this was the first time a Global Hawk unmanned air vehicle has flown as far as 85 degrees north latitude. 

The flights were designed to address several science objectives, including validation and scientific collaboration with NASA earth observation satellite (EOS) missions, principally the Aura satellite, also built by Northrop Grumman. The GloPac payloads collected atmospheric data in the same location at the same time as Aura and other EOS missions to compare and combine results. 


"Global Hawk is a revolutionary aircraft for science because of its enormous range and endurance," said Paul Newman, co-mission scientist for GloPac and an atmospheric scientist from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "No other science platform provides the range and time to sample rapidly evolving atmospheric phenomena. This mission is our first opportunity to demonstrate the unique capabilities of this plane, while gathering atmospheric data in a region that is poorly sampled." 

A Space Act Agreement between NASA Dryden Flight Research Center and Northrop Grumman established a partnership to re-fit and maintain two Global Hawk aircraft transferred from the U.S. Air Force. As part of the Northrop Grumman/NASA partnership, the company contributed to the GloPac missions by developing the GloPac mission plans; confirming aircraft performance through extensive analysis; providing pilots and training for NASA/NOAA pilots; sharing maintenance and operations support; and developing and building a new ground control station and software for aircraft operations.  

Additionally, under a contract from NASA, Northrop Grumman performed aircraft modification engineering and analysis for installation of the science payloads, which was funded by the science sponsors for each of the 11 sensors. 

"We have partnered with NASA to provide this new capability for the atmospheric science community," said Carl Johnson, Northrop Grumman vice president of advanced concepts ? air and land. "The Global Hawk system has been serving the United States Air Force and Navy and is now serving mankind with critical data from the NASA and NOAA science experiments. Global Hawk is truly global in its reach."  

Later this year, NASA Global Hawk will examine hurricanes and their formation process. This experiment will explore the possibility of improving hurricane forecasts. The Global Hawk aircraft is proving to be the premier platform for use in high-altitude, long-duration Earth science missions.
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