The Global Hawk is pictured over the high desert. (NASA Photo / Carla Thomas) NASA's Global Hawk flew a number of key milestones in April, including three flights that culminated in its longest science mission to date - a 28-hour, 36-minute flight to the Arctic on April 23-24.
The high-altitude, autonomously operated aircraft flew two passes at 85 degrees north latitude, about 340 miles from the North Pole. That latitude is the farthest north any Global Hawk - civil or military - has ever been flown. The Global Hawk cruised at altitudes up to 65,100 feet while its 11 onboard atmospheric instruments recorded data.
The flight was the third data-collection flight and the fourth overall in the joint NASA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 2010 Global Hawk Pacific, or GloPac environmental science mission. The April 2 first flight in the series involved a checkout of aircraft systems and science instruments.
NASA's Global Hawk and science instruments are monitored and controlled by pilots and scientists from the Global Hawk Operations Center at Dryden. Although its flight path is pre-programmed, human pilots can override and re-program the aircraft mission management computers.
As the aircraft embarked April 13 on its first science flight over the Pacific Ocean, members of the media gathered at Dryden to learn more about the unmanned aircraft system and how it will serve the science community and to peer in on how the mission was accomplished.
Media representatives were invited in April to view the unmanned aircraft. (NASA Photo / Tom Tschida) Ken Jucks, NASA project manager for the NASA Headquarters-based Upper Atmosphere Research program, said the Global Hawk has a number of missions that it will complete, including calibrating satellites, observing weather partners and studying the ozone layer and atmospheric chemical composition.
"It [the Global Hawk] allows us observations we simply couldn't get any other way, in places we could not go and [collects] data we could not get," he said.
Paul Newman, a NASA atmospheric scientist based at Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt Md., told media representatives what the aircraft means to him and his colleagues.
"We have waited a long time for Global Hawk. For us, this is a vision of the future," he said.
The first Earth science mission is a sign of what's to come and signals that the aircraft will be an integral part of weather, ice and ozone work. Newman called it "an historic moment."
He also stressed the value of an asset that can engage in up to 30-hour missions carrying up to 1,500 pounds of science equipment. Science instruments on the aircraft study a multitude of questions that can be answered at the Arctic and the equator.
Staff members at Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., play key roles in operating the instruments, including in simulation exercises and with power and data challenges, which allow many of the instruments to simply "plug and play" on the aircraft, like plugging an appliance into a home electrical outlet.
Plans call for the Global Hawk to be used to assist scientists in the study of ozone depletion, atmospheric chemistry contributing to surface changes, dust, aerosols and pollution. Also, one instrument currently on board the aircraft can be used to examine the structure of clouds and their chemical composition, Newman added.
An advantage to flying in the 45,000- to 65,000-foot-altitude range is that the Global Hawk is above 95 percent of the atmosphere, including water vapor that can obstruct work with some instruments, Newman said.
"It can look down on the weather and make direct measurements of ozone, gases and small particles, aerosols. It could look at a potential screen" to cool the Earth, he added.
The Global Hawk work will be a success because "the caliber of the people on the project is high," said Chris Naftel, Dryden Global Hawk project manager.
A continuing partnership Dryden has established with the Federal Aviation Administration unmanned project office has been vital to coordinating the atmospheric sampling missions and additional flights are planned for late summer, he said.
David Fahey, a research physicist in NOAA's Chemical Sciences division, spoke highly of the agency's partnership with NASA. NOAA Commander Phil Hall is deputy project manager at Dryden for the Global Hawk.
"We are very proud to be involved. It is truly a historic flight," Fahey said. "NOAA enriches life through science from the surface of the sun to the depths of the oceans. We are stewards of the ocean and atmosphere."
On April 13, media members were able to see for themselves how flight operations are carried out on the Global Hawk's 24-hour mission to the Pacific Ocean, toward Alaska and near Hawaii and the tropics. Live images were transmitted to the command center by an L3 Communications satellite link from an Ames camera fixed on the Global Hawk.
Separate rooms are available at the command center for pilots and scientists. Pilots and mission controllers monitored the flight and were prepared to make any required flight path changes, while scientists in another room monitored and operated their instruments.
Two early production model Global Hawks were transferred from the Air Force to Dryden in 2007 and have been modified for use in the science missions. A third was acquired in 2009.
Agreements with Northrop Grumman Corp., manufacturer of the Global Hawks, were developed through which the aircraft and associated infrastructure can be flown and for training of ground and operations crew, modification and servicing of the aircraft, as well through which an operations center will be developed featuring separate work areas for pilots and scientists observing and gathering data from experiments on board the aircraft.
A five-year agreement between Northrop and Dryden, which began about two years ago, allows 50-50 sharing of costs for flying and staffing the aircraft, shared access to air and ground crews and the added option of flights being made for Northrop Grumman.
Alan Brown and Beth Hagenauer of the Dryden Public Affairs office contributed to this report.