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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