“That’s Professor Global Hawk”

A remote-piloted warrior starts flying for science.

Ready for its closeup: The first demilitarized Global Hawk debuts in 2009 at NASA’s Dryden center in California, where scientists will use it to study hurricanes, pollution, and other atmospheric disturbances. (Chad Slattery)
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A synthetic-aperture radar pod mounted beneath a wing is also planned, and thanks to an East Coast base, says Naftel, “I can see us going to Greenland from Wallops Island [a NASA rocket launch site in Virginia] to map the ice surface up there, to track the changes that are occurring, and doing the same thing over the North Pole and the South Pole.”

Perhaps most significantly, Northrop Grumman is developing technology for mid-air refueling between two autonomous vehicles, potentially allowing the receiving vehicle to stay aloft for up to seven days. A demonstration program is planned for next year.

With longer-endurance aircraft and perhaps a larger fleet on the horizon, NASA scientists envision autonomous aircraft like Global Hawk playing a routine role in monitoring the world’s weather and studying its atmospheric changes. Chris Naftel calls it “nearly a perfect science platform.” Attention satellite manufacturers: You may want to watch your backs.

Kara Platoni is a freelance science writer living in Oakland, California, and an instructor at the University of California at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. Her most recent story in Air & Space/Smithsonian was “The Six” (June/July 2009).

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