Beginning this spring NASA will be flying an unmanned robotic-satellite hybrid aircraft outfitted with scientific instruments to observe the Earth's atmosphere in minute detail. The agency has partnered with Northrop Grumman to outfit three aircraft, called Global Hawks -gifts to NASA by the U.S. Air Force- that can fly for up to 30 hours and travel for longer distances and at high altitudes with greater accuracy that satellite observations and travel to regions, such as the arctic, that are typically too dangerous for manned missions.
"There are certain types of atmospheric and earth science data that we are missing, even though we have things like satellites, manned aircraft, and surface-based networks," said Robbie Hood, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Unmanned Aircraft Systems program in an interview with MIT's Technology Review. NOAA has formed an agreement with NASA to help construct the scientific instruments and guide the science missions for the Global Hawks to fly over a hurricane to monitor its intensity changes, for example, or fly over the arctic to monitor sea ice changes in higher detail.
The Global Hawks' first mission launched last week--an aircraft flew from NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California over the Pacific Ocean to take measurements and map aerosols and gases in the atmosphere, profile clouds, and gather meteorological data such as temperatures, winds, and pressures. It also has high-definition cameras to image the ocean colors.
The RoboPlane will also fly under the Aura Satellite, a NASA satellite currently studying the Earth's ozone, air quality, and climate, to validate its measurements, making a comparison between its readings and what the new aircraft can do.
The instruments onboard for the first mission include: a LIDAR instrument that uses a laser pulse to measure the shape, size, and density of clouds and aerosols; a spectrograph that measures and maps pollutants like nitrogen dioxide, ozone, and aerosols; an ultraviolet photometer for ozone measurements; a gas chromatograph to calculate greenhouse gases; a handful of other instruments that can accurately measure atmospheric water vapor and ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons ; and high-definition cameras to image the ocean colors and learn about their biological processes.
The researchers will also be able to sample parts of the atmosphere that they have not been able to reach or monitor for long durations--. The aircraft can fly at an altitude of 19.812 kilometers and travel nearly 22,800 kilometers reaching the upper troposphere and lower stratosphere -"a crucial region that responds to and contributes to climate change at the surface, and we have come to realize that it is highly undersampled," says David Fahey, co-project scientist and a research physicist at NOAA's Earth Science Research Lab in Boulder, CO. "If you don't know what is going on in certain regions of the atmosphere, you will misinterpret what is going on at the surface."
"The planes are really hat are going to revolutionize the way we do science," Newman says. The next mission will be to study hurricanes in the Caribbean, and will include a new suite of instruments for the planes.
Jason McManus via MIT Technology Review