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Unmanned planes converted to climate scouts

/ Source: Discovery Channel

In a modern-day rendition of beating swords into plowshares, a pair of unmanned military aircraft have been turned over to NASA for research on Earth's environment.

Test flights on a Northrop Grumman Global Hawk aircraft are under way at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in California in preparation for a new mission called Global Hawk Pacific, or GloPac.

NASA has staged environmental research flights from aircraft previously, but none have the reach and duration of Global Hawk, a high-altitude, unmanned aircraft with a range of more 3,400 miles and which can stay aloft for more than a day.

Previous NASA research flights, such as aboard a modified U-2 spy plane called ER-2, are much more limited in distance and duration, said Paul Newman, an atmospheric scientist at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and the lead researcher for GloPac.

"We've flown over some really exotic places," Newman told Discovery News. "The U-2 can fly a fairly decent distance, but it's a single pilot in the plane ... and it's kind of a stressful job. Eight hours is really tough. They just can't stay there for a long time."

NASA plans to use a specially outfitted Global Hawk aircraft to verify measurements of atmospheric gases taken by the AURA satellite, one of 15 NASA spacecraft now monitoring Earth.

"Once you launch a satellite, of course you don't get it back, so you have to go and make co-incident measurements with it so you know If your satellite is making the proper observations," Newman said.

"We're going to put (Global Hawk) out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, flying a specific spot, at a specific time the satellite goes winging by," he said.

Instruments aboard Global Hawk will sample the atmosphere and make other measurements to study water vapor, ozone, chlorofluorocarbons, carbon monoxide, methane and other gases.

'We're interested in issues related to climate change," Newman said.

NASA is taking over two of seven Global Hawks originally built for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency as prototypes. Production of the operational systems began in 2001.

Since then, 25 Global Hawk aircraft have since been delivered to the Air Force, two to the Navy and one to Germany, said Bill Walker, Northrop Grumman's Global Hawk business development director.

The company plans to use the NASA project to highlight alternative missions for the aircraft and to demonstrate how unmanned airplanes can be integrated into regular airspace.

The first flight for NASA's GloPac mission is expected in January.