Global Hawk, Northrop Grumman’s sophisticated unmanned high altitude surveillance aircraft is finding its niche in unexpected areas. In April, 2010, in consort with NASA, a Global Hawk fitted with scientific instruments completed 82.5 flight hours cruising at latitudes ranging from the Arctic Circle to just near the equator as part of an ongoing civilian research program known as GloPac, or Global Hawk Pacific Program, which aims to study atmospheric conditions over the Pacific and Arctic oceans.

GloPac is discovering that using such a unique aircraft produces results that are nothing short of revolutionary in terms of gathering atmospheric data. For instance, its extreme range and endurance enables the sampling of rapidly evolving phenomena unachievable in previous missions, and at greater altitudes over areas where few studies have ever taken place.

“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, Colorado. “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.”

Cruising at 45,000 to 65,000 feet, the aircraft enables scientists to retrieve data about greenhouse gasses and ozone depleting substances through measurements of dust, smoke and pollutants as they cross the Pacific from Asia and gauge its effect on U.S air quality. In addition, aerosols, whose role in the atmosphere is not completely understood, shall undergo monitoring to observe how high altitude particulates absorb and reflect sunlight to cause cooling and warmth and their place in the formation of clouds.

Just as important, with many future flights on the horizon, researchers expect an unprecedented view of the mysterious Polar Vortex, a large cyclone that controls weather patterns around the Arctic and vital to understanding ozone depletion in the Northern Hemisphere. April’s flight attained measurements of the cyclone, and as the data grows, there is eager anticipation of a more thorough understanding about nature’s power as the aircraft reveals more of the atmosphere’s secrets.

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