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NASA to Use Unmanned Spy Plane for Research

January 16, 2009

On Thursday, NASA and Northrop Grumman unveiled two unmanned aircraft that will be used for atmospheric research starting in June. 

The planes are modified versions of the Global Hawk, the Air Force’s unmanned spy plane. 

“Today marks the debut of NASA’s newest airborne science capability,” said Kevin L. Petersen, director of NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center, where the debut took place.

“These Global Hawks represent the first non-military use of this remarkable robotic aircraft system. NASA’s partnership with Northrop Grumman has made this possible.”

Both planes are capable of staying in flight for over 30 hours at a time, and will be equipped with scientific tools to sample greenhouse gases.

They will be used as part of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate to verify measurements made by the Aura research satellite.

“It’s a whole new ballgame for us,” said Paul A. Newman, project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Scientists will be able to access the instruments onboard the Global Hawk through a satellite feed. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is partnering with NASA to help develop scientific instruments to be used in future Earth science research campaigns.

“The Global Hawks will provide superb new measurement possibilities for our climate science and applications programs,” said Michael Freilich, director of NASA’s Earth Science Division.

“This collaboration is a model for NASA’s wide-ranging Earth-observation activities to advance our understanding of Earth as an integrated system, which is critical to developing responses to environmental change here and around the world.”

In December 2007, NASA received two Global Hawks from the Air Force, which were developed as part of the original Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration Project.  The planes have since been used for surveillance in Iraq and Afghanistan, and for tracking wildfires in the U.S.

Northrop Grumman Corp, the maker of the Global Hawk, received a five-year contract last year to help shore up NASA’s new Global Hawk program.

The planes are capable of flying at altitudes of nearly 65,000, and can stay in air much longer than previous research aircraft.  The Global Hawk can also carry up to 2,000 pounds.

The planes will fly in and out of Edwards Air Force Base north of Los Angeles. 

NASA plans to begin with short flights and gradually increase to 30 hour flights through the Pacific and Arctic.

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Image Courtesy Of NASA

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