NASA Spends $25M to Explore Earth

August 12, 2008 by  
Filed under Features

The name NASA is usually associated with space exploration, but it seems the association is aiming a little lower with its most recent project – the purchase of two unmanned aircraft for use in long-duration, high-altitude Earth science missions. The association will also be paying Northrop Grumman plenty of money to keep the program up and running over the next five years.

NASA recently announced its plans to purchase two Global Hawk unmanned aircraft and to pay aircraft manufacturer Northrop Grumman US$25 million for their participation in the program. The 44-foot long aircraft can weigh around 26 000 pounds once it is fully equipped. It’s ability to fly 11 000 nautical miles and stay in the sky for up to 30 hours make it the perfect choice for the project. NASA plans to use it to support the scientific community in their efforts to measure, monitor and observe remote corners of the Earth. The fact that the aircraft, which has a wingspan of more than 116 feet, is unmanned makes these missions much more feasible and practical. Previously this sort of work would have been unfeasible for piloted aircraft and difficult or impossible for remotely operated aircraft or satellites. So far the Northrop Grumman Global Hawk is the only unmanned aircraft to not only meet both the US FAA and military’s airworthiness standards, but to gain approval to make regular flights within US airspace.

The newly purchased Global Hawks will be operated from NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center via satellite communication links. The system will not only enable researchers to monitor the instrument function of both aircraft from the ground, but provide them with the ability to evaluate certain data collected by the Global Hawks in real time. The information gathered by the two aircraft will also serve to help the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the US Department of Energy. The NOAA also hopes to use unmanned aircraft to measure a variety of natural phenomenon such as hurricanes and arctic/Antarctic ice changes. Allowing an unmanned aircraft to explore these environmental occurrences is completely safe and will provide these various organizations with some very precious scientific data.

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