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NASA completes first flight with unmanned spy plane

April 8, 2010 |  1:50 pm

NASA's Global Hawk Credit: NASA/Dryden/Carla Thomas

NASA transformed a robotic plane that's typically used by the U.S. military to uncover nests of insurgents into a scientific tool capable of collecting atmospheric information over the Pacific and Arctic oceans.

On April 7, NASA used the unmanned spy plane, called the Global Hawk, on the first of five flights it has scheduled this month to study air quality.

Instead of the high-resolution cameras and heat-seeking sensors the plane is typically carries when used in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Global Hawk was outfitted with a series of instruments capable of measuring and sampling greenhouse gases, ozone-depleting substances, and aerosols.

NASA’s mission, a joint project with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has been dubbed Global Hawk Pacific, or GloPac.

The Global Hawk took off and landed at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in the Mojave Desert without the need of a pilot's hand. Instead, NASA pilots simply designed a flight path for the plane to follow and sent it on its way.

According to NASA, it flew more than 14 hours along a flight path that took it 4,500 nautical miles -- just south of Alaska's Kodiak Island.

Built by Northrop Grumman Corp. in its manufacturing facilities in Palmdale, the Global Hawk flies high above the clouds at 60,000 feet -- almost twice as high as a commercial airliner. The plane has a flight range of 11,000 nautical miles, or half the circumference of Earth.

The captured data were relayed from the Global Hawk's onboard computers to a ground control station located at Dryden via satellite link.

Because of its range and endurance, the Global Hawk was ideal to capture the much-needed information, said Paul Newman, co-mission scientist for GloPac and an atmospheric scientist, in a statement.

“No other science platform provides the range and time to sample rapidly evolving atmospheric phenomena,” Newman said. “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."

-- W.J. Hennigan