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NASA’s Unpiloted Aircraft Takes To The Skies

April 14, 2010

On Tuesday, officials from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced the start of a 24-hour flight for the unpiloted Global Hawk aircraft, a robotic plane that can fly nearly twice as high as commercial airliners.

The Global Hawk, which was originally designed to complete high-altitude, high-endurance recon and intelligence, is now being used by NASA to help scientists study the atmosphere. During Tuesday’s flight, the craft soared over the Pacific Ocean while being operated remotely via computer terminal by a pilot at the Dryden Flight Research Center in California’s Mojave Desert.

Paul Newman, co-mission scientist for Global Hawk Pacific (GloPac) and senior scientist in NASA’s Atmospherics, Chemistry and Dynamics Branch at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, called the autonomous aircraft “a perfect platform for ozone-depletion science” in an interview with the Associated Press (AP).

This was the second flight for the whale-nosed craft, with three more currently scheduled. Its maiden voyage took place in the waters south of Alaska’s Kodiak Island on April 8. That flight lasted a little more than 14 hours and reached heights in excess of 60,000 feet.

According to NASA statistics, the Global Hawk can remain airborne for up to 30 hours, and can follow a pre-programmed flight plan for up to 11,000 nautical miles, or half of the Earth’s circumference.

“The Global Hawk is a revolutionary aircraft for science because of its enormous range and endurance,” Newman said in an April 8 NASA press release.

“No other science platform provides this much range and time to sample rapidly evolving atmospheric phenomena,” he continued, adding that he original voyage provide an opportunity “to demonstrate the unique capabilities of this plane, while gathering atmospheric data in a region that is poorly sampled.”

Image Caption: The Global Hawk can fly autonomously to altitudes above 60,000 feet — roughly twice as high as a commercial airliner — and as far as 11,000 nautical miles. Operators pre-program a flight path, and then the plane flies itself for as long as 30 hours. Credit:  NASA/Dryden/Carla Thomas

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