Global Hawk: NASA Readies New 'Robo Plane' to Probe Atmosphere [VIDEO]

Global Hawk, NASA's New Remote-Controlled Plane, will monitor the Troposphere and Stratosphere, and image the Earth's surface. NASA Photograph by Carla Thomas


NASA’s newest tool for climate science, Global Hawk, will probe the ozone layer from above and verify satellite data.

Just 44 feet in length, with a wingspan of 116 feet, and looking at times both graceful and oddly misshapen, NASA’s Global Hawk made it’s flight debut (with a scientific payload) in early April, 2010. Global Hawk is a remote-controlled airplane designed for high altitude flight and equipped with a range of scientific instruments (what one expects from a NASA project) for real-time monitoring of our Earth’s troposphere (the atmospheric band closest to the ground) and lower stratosphere .

The Global Hawk is a robotic airplane that will provide scientists with up-to-the-minute data on atmospheric chemistry and composition.

Amongst the aircraft’s instrumentation is a device called ACAM (Airborne Compact Atmospheric Mapper) which is about the size of your average microwave oven and is located in the tail section of the craft. The ACAM device combines a spectrometer with a high-def camera. The spectrometer is used for detecting the absorption of light by different atmospheric gases and chemicals (including dust and other pollutants).The camera will combine red, green and blue spectral data to image “map” the Earth’s atmosphere.

Different gases and elements absorb/reflect characteristic wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum–allowing scientists to identify the location and size of,  for example, the protective ozone layer (which deflects solar radiation that promotes both atmospheric warming and, in the biosphere, genetic mutations). The ACAM will make such detection much easier, and more accurate.

Additional sensors (housed mostly in the enlarged nose of the plane) will enable scientists to monitor temperature changes, CO2 concentration changes (measured in parts per million), as well as any significant build up of aerosols, dust, or other pollutants.

Watch this sped up VIDEO of the construction of the Global Hawk Aircraft; article continues below:


The primary purpose of the Global Hawk Mission, as stated on NASA’s Earth Observatory website, is to collect observational data and using it to check the accuracy of simultaneous observations made by its Aura satellite, with its mission of probing the ozone layer, and the nitrogen and chlorine-based chemicals (such as nitrogen dioxide, NO2) that destroy it, and verifying its recovery as predicted by recent climate models. Global Hawk data will thus provide climatologist with a valuable means of error-correction and better climate predictions (a simulation of Aura detected, ozone layer dynamics can be found here).

Aura Satellite’s Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) map showing nitrogen dioxide (NO2) columns over the western US (note: NO2 is an industrial pollutant and GHG which, in the upper atmosphere, destroys protective ozone)

The NASA/Global Hawk team, lead by Chris Naftel at the Dryden Research Center (Edwards Air Force base), is preparing for an important remote monitoring mission called the Global Hawk Pacific campaign, or GloPac, which will be comprised of four to five separate flights over the Pacific Ocean and the Arctic.

The original tests of the aircraft were conducted in October of 2009. Current testing is with the full scientific payload (a total of ten sensing instruments), the final step before embarking on its designed mission.

The aircraft’s long wings house its fuel compartment and allow the craft to stay airborne for 30 hours or more. The plane is built to reach and maintain a cruising altitude of 65, 000 feet (about 13 miles or 8 kilometers), twice the altitude of a commercial aircraft, and which is approximately the boundary of our troposphere (the band just beneath the stratosphere, closest to the Earth’s surface).

Top photo (Global Hawk):  NASA, photograph by Carla Thomas

Satellite Map (tropospheric NO2): KNMI/NASA/NIVR

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