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Saturday, Sep 23, 2023

Global Hawks Fly Around Storms

NASA scientists are using a Global Hawk drone built by Northrop Grumman Corp. in Palmdale to study hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean. Hurricane and other weather-related studies are the latest life science missions performed by the unmanned aircraft, which are more widely known for their use by the U.S. Air Force and Navy for military operations. The Global Hawk collects atmospheric data that NASA otherwise would not be able to gather. A pilot using a keyboard and mouse last month flew the Global Hawk from NASA Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base to the NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The aircraft performed the first fly over of Hurricane Leslie on Sept. 7 and is slated to do future science missions departing from the Wallops facility. Pilots from both NASA facilities will control the Global Hawk. Northrop Grumman began producing the Global Hawk in 2006. It has delivered 45 of the aircraft and is contracted with the Pentagon to deliver another 15. The drone can fly to an altitude of 65,000 feet and stay aloft for up to 28 hours. The drone flew a mission Sept. 26 far over the Atlantic to explore tropical storm Nadine at a range well beyond conventional aircraft. The aircraft was planned to fly a back and forth pattern above the storm for about 12 hours and drop 74 sensors attached to parachutes to measure wind, pressure and temperature. It is an unprecedented collection of data not possible without the range, duration and altitude of the Global Hawk, said Paul Newman, NASA’s deputy project scientist for the hurricane missions. “This is going to lead to better forecasting of hurricane intensity,” Newman said. The hurricane missions will end in mid-October and be repeated during the 2013 and 2014 hurricane seasons. New discoveriesOn a science mission flight over Alaska, dust from the Gobi Desert in Mongolia was detected above the state, said Bill Walker, director of Business Development for Future Global Hawk Capabilities. “The scientists are ecstatic about what they are finding,” Walker said. The Global Hawks used by NASA are stripped-down versions of those used by the military, and they are fitted with special sensors and instruments. Some of the instruments for the hurricane missions were developed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada-Flintridge. “Each aircraft was configured as a pick-up truck that we can go ahead and plug (in) multiple instruments or sensors,” said Steve Sipprell, a Global Hawk pilot with Northrop Grumman who flies missions for NASA. Designing the instruments carried by Global Hawk is challenging, as they must fit into the nose, belly or tail of the aircraft and cannot exceed a 1,500-pound payload capacity. Additionally, they must be able to operate in the stratosphere where the air is thin, cold and dry. “It is amazing you can build instruments like this,” Newman said. A second plane scheduled to be sent to Wallops in mid-September remains at Dryden due to setbacks with the hardware and software that operate the instruments, Newman said. Testing will continue on that aircraft, which should be available for next year’s hurricane season, he said. The endurance and performance of the Global Hawk is valuable for hurricane studies which involve flying above the storms and around them to measure winds, temperature, water vapor, and precipitation. As the storms move, Northrop and NASA work with the Federal Aviation Administration to create contingency plans in the event something goes wrong with the aircraft, said Kent Fuller, the lead pilot with Northrop for the NASA missions. “It is a very choreographed operation,” Fuller said. Contingency plans would be implemented in the event of a power failure on the aircraft, a sub-systems failure or a loss of signal, Fuller said. For example, if the signal goes out between the aircraft and the ground station, the plane would decide to continue executing the pre-planned mission to its destination and then land on its own, Fuller said. “It is a smart airplane, but it does involve pilot input,” he said. In addition to studying hurricanes, the Global Hawk has been sent to the North Pole to study melting ice caps. It also has been used to monitor holes in the ozone in the upper atmosphere and to examine algae in littoral areas near shorelines. An upcoming mission will study earth movements from dams and berms along rivers in Northern California, Walker said. “Periodically the levees give way,” Walker said. “With high altitude surveying they can identify where there are problems.”

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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