Friday, April 23, 2010

NASA Ames Supports Unmanned Aircraft Mission Across the Pacific

Some of NASA's best talent is hidden behind the scenes when Earth science airborne campaigns are being planned and executed around the world. As part of NASA’s Airborne Science Program, several groups from NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., provide key support to ensure the success of these missions.

Today, their legacy continues as they develop the science infrastructure using NASA’s newest tool in its airborne research fleet, the Global Hawk Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS). "It is NASA's first fully autonomous, high altitude, long endurance UAS. It will give scientists the ability to carry payloads to remote regions of the atmosphere and remain there for long durations collecting key measurements," said Michael Craig, research manager at NASA's Ames and project manager for the first Earth science Global Hawk experiment, known as the Global Hawk Pacific (GloPac) mission.

The Global Hawk has a flight duration of more than 30 hours, a maximum altitude of 65,000 feet, a range of 11,000 nautical miles, and a payload capability of more than 1,500 lbs. of scientific instruments. No other manned or unmanned aircraft can meet these performance capabilities. NASA Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, Calif., has acquired three of the first seven Global Hawk aircraft produced for the U.S. Air Force and, through an agreement with the manufacturer, Northrop Grumman Corp., Los Angeles, is modifying them for Earth science operations.

The GloPac mission, now underway at Dryden, has completed its first flights with tremendous success and NASA Ames has played a vital role in providing the management, flight planning, meteorological constraints and science instrument infrastructure and communications required with this new platform. GloPac and the Airborne Science Program are funded by the Earth Science Division of NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

"It's really amazing to see all these state-of-the-art technologies and hard work come together to create such an outstanding capability," said Craig.

GloPac is being conducted in support of NASA’s Aura and A-Train satellite Earth Observation System constellation. The mission will consist of four to five science flights that will take the aircraft over the Pacific south to the equator, north to the Arctic and to the west past Hawaii. The payload includes 11 science instruments that will collect a wide range of atmospheric data, including trace gases and aerosol composition, as well as meteorological parameters.

"These observations are important for understanding processes that control ozone-depleting substances, greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change and pollution that impacts air quality," explained Craig.

There are over 100 people working on the GloPac mission. This includes managers, pilots, scientists, engineers, aircraft ground crew, and other support staff from NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), several universities and others. The NASA team includes members from Ames Research Center, Dryden Flight Research Center, Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., and NASA Headquarters, Washington.

"This team is transforming the way Earth Science airborne missions will be performed in the future," said Craig.

Several other teams are developing new research missions and applications for the Global Hawk, and NASA is now working on a mobile control center that will give the aircraft truly global coverage. Later this summer, NASA will use the Global Hawk to monitor hurricane development and intensification. Scientists predict that in future years, the aircraft could be used to monitor a number of natural and human-made changes to our planet, including climate change, ice thicknesses, and ecosystems.

Global Hawk program is a collaborative effort between NASA’s Earth Science, the Northrop Grumman Corp., and NOAA.

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