GloPac Mission Validates NASA's Use of Global Hawks for Environmental Science
In 1999, NASA's Paul Newman and NOAA's David Fahey dreamed of placing science instruments on the high-altitude, long-endurance Global Hawk unmanned aircraft that was being developed by a division of Northrop Grumman Corp. for the U.S. Air Force.
The two scientists' dream was fulfilled during the spring of 2010 when 11 atmospheric monitoring instruments flew on a NASA Global Hawk for the first science demonstration of the latest of NASA's airborne science aircraft. The mission was a joint project of NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA.
More than 130 personnel supported the recent Global Hawk Pacific 2010 mission, nicknamed GloPac. The team gathered in March at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center on Edwards Air Force Base in California to prepare for the mission. The initial checkout and mission flights took one of NASA's Global Hawks first over the Mojave Desert and then out over the Pacific Ocean to validate the aircraft's endurance, altitude and connectivity to the science payload.
Scientists and technicians spent two weeks of long hours preparing their instruments and installing them on the aircraft. The Global Hawk Operations Center located at Dryden was packed with pilots, mission managers and scientists anxious to learn how this aircraft would handle its new role carrying a science payload.
A six-hour checkout flight April 2 was flown at various altitudes over Southern California's Mojave Desert to verify the operation of the science instruments. Science managers confirmed that the flight in restricted airspace proved the instruments and aircraft were ready for a mission over the Pacific.
April 7 saw the aircraft reach an altitude of 61,000 feet during the 14-hour initial science flight. With sensors operating, the aircraft traveled to just south of Alaska's Kodiak Island. Team members from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Ames Research Center, Dryden, and NOAA, the University of Denver, the University of California - Santa Cruz and Droplet Measurement Technologies were delighted when scientists observed the breakup of the polar vortex. A polar vortex is a large-scale cyclone in the upper troposphere and lower stratosphere that dominates winter weather patterns around the Arctic. It is important in understanding ozone depletion in the Northern Hemisphere.
Early on the morning of April 13, the NASA Global Hawk took to the air again. When the aircraft returned 24 hours later, it had flown a path to just south of Alaska, then east of Hawaii and back to North America with a final leg back to Edwards. The flight covered almost 9,000 nautical miles. The aircraft reached an altitude 62,000 feet and included two data-collection descents to 59,000 and 43,000 feet as it explored the atmosphere at latitudes between 52 degrees north in the Arctic and 12 degrees north in the tropics.
During the southbound leg, the Global Hawk flew under the tracks of two of NASA's "A-Train" satellites – Aura and CALIPSO – while a Gulfstream V aircraft operated by the National Center for Atmospheric Research flew the same track at a lower altitude. The flights successfully completed one of the mission's science objectives to validate data from the satellites.
A third flight April 23 was the longest airborne science mission flown, lasting 28 hours and 36 minutes. The aircraft flew above 70 degrees north latitude for more than eight hours, becoming the first Global Hawk to fly to 85 degrees north latitude, only 340 miles from the North Pole. On the return flight south, the pilots modified the flight route so that instruments could collect data on an Asian dust plume that had blown across the Pacific to just off the coast of Washington and Oregon.
The final GloPac flight lasted 9.3 hours. During the outbound portion of the flight to the equatorial region, the aircraft collected data on stratospheric trace gases and profiles of cloud structures. The flight was cut short due to a loss of electrical power to the 11 science instruments. The mission ended with the Global Hawk having completed 82 flight hours during its initial science mission.
"The GloPac mission showed that the Global Hawk aircraft is a revolutionary tool for Earth science research," said co-mission scientist Newman, who is based at NASA Goddard in Greenbelt, Md. "The Global Hawk has now proven to be a science platform that can fly to altitudes of 65,000 feet for long-duration flights approaching 30 hours."
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Beth Hagenauer, Tybrin Corp.
NASA Dryden Flight Research Center