7 April 2010
Wednesday April 7 marked the dawn of a new era in airborne sampling of the upper troposphere and lower stratosphere with the first science flight of the Global Hawk UAS (unmanned aerial system) aircraft.
On April 7, the Global Hawk UAS left Edwards Air Force Base in California in the early morning hours for its eventual flight of just over 14 hours, traversing west and north over the Pacific Ocean and reaching about as far north as Kodiak Island off the coast of Alaska. Instruments aboard the aircraft gathered data on atmospheric composition (ozone, water vapor, and others) and meteorology. Data were communicated in real time from the Global Hawk to scientists on the ground at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center. They analyzed the information and adjusted flight plans accordingly to maximize the scientific payoffs from the flight.
The success follows from many months of instrument research and development, followed by several weeks of onsite engineering, testing, and adjustment at Dryden to establish the flight-readiness of the payload of scientific instrumentation.
The flight was the first of five flights planned for the Global Hawk Pacific (GloPac) mission, a joint project of NASA and NOAA to study the atmosphere over the Pacific and Arctic Oceans. A payload of 11 scientific instruments samples meteorology and chemistry and includes an ozone instrument (led by RuShan Gao of CSD) and a gas chromatograph to measure greenhouse gases and ozone-depleting substances (led by Jim Elkins of GMD). The GloPac flights this month will range from the equator north to the Arctic Circle and west of Hawaii. One objective is to measure the breakup of the Arctic polar vortex, a large-scale cyclone that affects winter weather patterns and is important in the processes that cause ozone-layer depletion in the Northern Hemisphere.
The Global Hawk is a robotic plane, piloted from the ground, that can fly to altitudes above 60,000 feet – roughly twice as high as a commercial airliner – and can fly as far as half the circumference of Earth in a single flight. Said CSD scientist Dave Fahey, co-Mission Scientist for GloPac, "The Global Hawk is a fantastic platform because it gives us expanded access to the atmosphere beyond what we have with piloted aircraft. We can go to regions we couldn't reach or go to previously explored regions and study them for extended periods that are impossible with conventional planes."
While the flights are in progress, the flight track can be viewed in real-time.
The historic April 7 flight represents the start of a new era in atmospheric sampling of the upper troposphere and lower stratosphere that will expand NOAA's capability to acquire data that are critical to an enhanced understanding of climate and climate processes.