There will be a powerful new scientific eye in the sky come summer.
NASA is prepping a Global Hawk, a version of the Air Force's top-of-the-line unmanned spy plane, for its first Earth science mission in June. Capable of staying aloft for more than 30 hours, it will sample greenhouse gases responsible for ozone depletion and verify measurements by NASA's Aura atmosphere research satellite.
"It's a whole new ballgame for us," said project scientist Paul A. Newman of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.
Previous research aircraft deployed to sample the atmosphere typically are smaller and cannot stay airborne as long as the Global Hawk. During the Global Hawk flights, scientists will have access to their instruments through a dedicated satellite feed and can view data in real time, Newman said.
In 2007, NASA received two Global Hawks from the Air Force. The computer-controlled, high-altitude drone is best known for its surveillance role in Iraq and Afghanistan and has been used to monitor wildfires in the United States.
Global Hawk maker Northrop Grumman Corp. last year received a five-year contract valued at up to $25 million to support NASA's Global Hawk unmanned aircraft program for atmospheric research.
On Thursday, NASA and Northrop Grumman unveiled the Global Hawks during a ceremony in the Mojave Desert attended by congressional aides, representatives from NASA headquarters and military contractors.
With a wingspan of 116 feet (35.36 meters), the Global Hawks can fly up to 65,000 feet (19,800 meters) — twice the altitude of commercial airliners. The craft can also carry payloads up to 2,000 pounds (907 kilograms).
Engineers will outfit one of the craft with science instruments in the spring, and flights are scheduled for summer. Missions will fly out of Edwards Air Force Base north of Los Angeles and return there. Initial flights will last several hours and will eventually ramp up to 30 hours with targets over the Pacific and Arctic.
Depending on how the tests go, scientists could fly the Global Hawk twice a week, Newman said.