The Global Hawk is a robotic plane that can fly autonomously to study Earth’s atmosphere, and can get to the area called the “Ignorosphere” that previously hasn’t been studied very well. The plane is carrying 11 instruments, and recently made its first science flight over the Pacific Ocean. “The Global Hawk is a fantastic platform because it gives us expanded access to the atmosphere beyond what we have with piloted aircraft,” said David Fahey, co-mission scientist and a research physicist at NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo. “We can go to regions we couldn’t reach or go to previously explored regions and study them for extended periods that are impossible with conventional planes.”
Global Hawk can fly at altitudes above 60,000 feet (18.3 kilometers) — roughly twice as high as a commercial airliner — and as far as 11,000 nautical miles (20,000 kilometers) — half the circumference of Earth.
“The Global Hawk is a revolutionary aircraft for science because of its enormous range and endurance,” said Paul Newman, co-mission scientist for GloPac and an atmospheric scientist from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. “No other science platform provides this much range and time to sample rapidly evolving atmospheric phenomena. This mission is our first opportunity to demonstrate the unique capabilities of this plane, while gathering atmospheric data in a region that is poorly sampled.”
The instruments on board will sample the chemical composition of Earth’s two lowest atmospheric layers, to profile the dynamics and meteorology of both, and to observe the distribution of clouds and aerosol particles.
Operators pre-program a flight path, and then the plane flies itself for as long as 30 hours, staying in contact through satellite and line-of-site communications to the ground control station at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in California’s Mojave Desert.