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The red line on an enhance satellite image shows the flight path of April 7th's successful Global Hawk research flight.  (Source: NASA/Dryden)
Unmanned aerial vehicles promise more than just battlefield recon.

The Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle is one of the U.S. Military's three primary UAVs. However, with extended ranges unavailable to all but the highest flying spy planes and in-air refueling craft, as well as pilot endurance with completely autonomous flight paths, the military isn't the only organization looking to the Global Hawk for reconnaissance operations.

One of NASA's own Global Hawk units has been customized to carry at least eleven and possibly more scientific instruments designed to take measurements and maps from low to very high altitudes. The current payload includes the Atmospheric Compact Atmospheric Mapper, Focused Cavity Aerosol Spectrometer and Nuclei-mode Aerosol Size Spectrometer, Unmanned Aircraft System Chromatograph for Atmospheric Trace Species, NOAA Unmanned Aerial System Ozone Instrument, Unmanned Aerial System Laser Hygrometer, Meteorological Measurement System, Microwave Temperature Profiler, High Definition Video System, and Cloud Physics LIDAR. This mouthful of devices has been designed to directly study the Earth's atmosphere in ways previously unavailable to the space agency.

The research craft passed its first programmed flight with flying colors. Leaving the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in Edwards, California, the UAV traveled northwest up the Pacific Ocean to a point just shy of Alaska's Kodiak Island, then returned home to Dryden. The flight lasted a bit over 14 hours of its 30 hour capability, and reached a top altitude of nearly 61,000 feet. That's twice as high as a standard airliner and nearly rivals of the SR-71 Blackbird's known operational ceiling of 80,000 feet. The trip was a mere 4,500 nautical miles, less than half the craft's maximum flight distance of 11,000 nautical miles.

Global Hawk Pacific (GloPac) co-mission scientist Paul Newman, based at Goddard Space Flight Center, said of the project, "The Global Hawk is a revolutionary aircraft for science because of its enormous range and endurance. No other science platform provides this much 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."

In fact, though Tuesday's flight mission was pre-programmed, flight mission specialists at Dryden's Global Hawk Operations Center can alter the drone's mission from the ground, enabling them to chase down these rapidly evolving atmospheric phenomena even in the middle of an ongoing mission.

Mission operators will also use the craft in conjunction with NASA's orbiting satellites like the Aura. This should allow them to better understand the measurements taken from both the satellites and the UAV.

The extended range, altitude and flight time of the Global Hawk craft promises to help with measurements in the highest altitudes of the troposphere and lower stratosphere, areas high enough to observe ozone-depleting and greenhouse chemicals where they are naturally destroyed. Scientists also hope to use the craft to study formations like the polar-vortex, a very large cyclone that has its hands in controlling arctic weather patterns and helps governs ozone depletion in the northern hemisphere.

For a Flash 360 degree view of the craft and short explanations of its systems, click here.

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By MrBlastman on 4/9/2010 2:31:55 PM , Rating: 5
Now, I think it is time for the 11,000 mile flight, straight to Pyongyang where we can drop poo-filled balloons onto Kim Jong's palace. Too bad the UAV won't make it back.

Only one minor thing:

/61,000 ft/ nearly rivals of the SR-71 Blackbird's known operational ceiling of 80,000

There's quite a bit of a difference between being able to make it to 61k ft. ASL versus 80k ft. ASL. I think an SU-27 might be able to push 67k, F-16 around 49-54k and an F-15 around 60-65k. Once they hit their max altitude, they fall like rocks. 61k for this thing is impressive, but in no way does it have the ability to produce enough thrust to keep it airborne at 80k feet.

As for dropping poo on our enemies, I say we ratify that into our rules of engagement asap. These UAV's are very promising. :)

RE: Good...
By kattanna on 4/9/2010 2:41:41 PM , Rating: 4
Now, I think it is time for the 11,000 mile flight, straight to Pyongyang where we can drop poo-filled balloons onto Kim Jong's palace

but then you might upset a world fashion trend!

SEOUL (AFP) – The trademark suit sported by North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il is now in fashion worldwide thanks to his greatness, Pyongyang's official website said Wednesday.

Uriminzokkiri, quoting an article in communist party newspaper Rodong Sinmun, said the modest-looking suits have gripped people's imagination and become a global vogue.

"The reason is that the august image of the Great General, who is always wearing the modest suit while working, leaves a deep impression on people's mind in the world," it said.

"To sum it up, that is because his image as a great man is so outstanding."

RE: Good...
By Anoxanmore on 4/9/2010 3:08:53 PM , Rating: 3
I don't think we can convience Mr. Hanky to perform suicide for us on the guy's suit. :(

RE: Good...
By MrBlastman on 4/9/2010 3:25:27 PM , Rating: 3
Mr. Hanky might understand, if we first convince him that he'd be saving humanity. All in the noble effort to give Kim Jong his brown belt.

If, and that is subjectively if, the citizens of North Korea realize their fearless leader is only a brownbelt and not a blackbelt, a revolution might ensue!

RE: Good...
By Anoxanmore on 4/9/2010 3:47:27 PM , Rating: 2
Excellent idea, or we could just make Jackie Chan fight their leader...


RE: Good...
By jonmcc33 on 4/9/2010 4:24:03 PM , Rating: 4
...if, the citizens of North Korea realize their fearless leader is only a brownbelt and not a blackbelt, a revolution might ensue!

He is a 6th degree blackbelt in crazy though.

NASA: Progress is our middle name
By porkpie on 4/9/2010 6:17:56 PM , Rating: 5
1969 : NASA makes headlines by placing man on the moon.

2010: NASA makes headlines by flying a small plane from California to Alaska.

Ahh, progress.

RE: NASA: Progress is our middle name
By JKflipflop98 on 4/10/2010 9:04:59 PM , Rating: 2
Makes me want to cry.

RE: NASA: Progress is our middle name
By hellokeith on 4/12/2010 2:17:08 AM , Rating: 2
Yeah let's just throw out everything we have accomplished in earth orbit: communications, weather monitoring, GPS, a freakin space station, astronomy, etc.

Going to the moon was surely an important accomplishment, and Obama killing our return has pretty much crippled USA's hopes of planetary exploration for decades to come. But the quality of life impact and scientifc discoveries made in earth orbit have truly been worth every dollar spent, regardless of the red tape and politicking present at NASA over the years.

By porkpie on 4/12/2010 10:08:51 AM , Rating: 2
"...scientifc discoveries made in earth orbit have truly been worth every dollar spent"

This was true up to some point around 1985-90. Since then, the bulk of Shuttle operations (which was itself the bulk of NASA's budget) was primarily done for no other reason than justifying its own existence. How many missions do we really need to "test the effects of microgravity on seed germination" and the like?

And no, I'm not knocking NASA's deep space missions. But they're a different (and much more motivated) branch altogether.

By AssBall on 4/10/2010 9:17:27 PM , Rating: 2

RE: NASA: Progress is our middle name
By SPOOFE on 4/11/2010 4:21:11 PM , Rating: 2
What happened in the interim? They blew up a school teacher 'round '86, if I recall.

By Reclaimer77 on 4/12/2010 8:35:27 AM , Rating: 2
classy man.. real classy... >_<

By niaaa on 4/12/2010 8:07:07 AM , Rating: 2
Posting in a tech news that isn't about an apple device :P

RE: Posting
By JediJeb on 4/12/2010 9:55:49 AM , Rating: 3
NASA didn't list the secret iPad controller on board that runs all of these experiments and sends the data back by posting it automatically on Facebook. So long as the temperature doesn't exceed 110F.

By drycrust3 on 4/10/2010 3:53:30 AM , Rating: 2
If instead of a jet engine, this was able to operate as a glider, then it would have potential on other planets, e.g. Mars.

RE: Glider
By JediJeb on 4/12/2010 4:10:53 PM , Rating: 2
Solar powered electric motor with a prop would be better than a glider for Mars, since once it lost speed and landed, how would it get back up again?

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