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The space agency will use a Northrop Grumman-manufactured Global Hawk, remote-controlled aircraft to sample the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean near the equator. It's one of two Global Hawks formerly operated by the Air Force that has been retrofitted for use by NASA. The agency has also begun using the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to study hurricanes and tropical storms.
NASA's new project is called the Airborne Tropical Tropopause Experiment, or ATTREX. The tropopause is the atmospheric layer between the troposphere, which is the lowest portion of the atmosphere, and the stratosphere. "There are vortices in the atmosphere that spin off the North Pole over the Pacific," said Don Sullivan, a NASA employee working on the IT portion of ATTREX. "A lot of stuff that originates in Asia winds up in North America. We don't know if it's original material" or chemically compounded in the atmosphere.
The Global Hawk is capable of flying at 65,000 feet and staying aloft for 30 hours, allowing for air sampling over an extended period. It has been outfitted with about a dozen scientific instruments and sensors to measure trace gases, temperature, water vapor, radiation and other cloud properties.
[NASA technology is key to learning about our planet and others. See 11 Cool Tools NASA Curiosity Brought To Mars.]
Moisture and chemical composition are variables in Earth's climate. According to NASA, the processes that cause fluctuations in atmospheric compounds are not well documented, and the ATTREX project aims to fill that void. A better understanding of the interactions taking place in the atmosphere could improve scientists' ability to forecast global climate conditions. NASA has several other projects underway to research climate change, and it will co-host a Climate Palooza on Jan. 24 with the University of Southern California.
Much of the data collected by NASA's drone will be sent in real time via satellite to researchers at the Dryden Flight Research Center in the Mojave desert. "The beauty of data being delivered over satellite links in real time is it allows comparison between instruments," Sullivan said. "We can do a lot more real-time science, and it's more cost effective."
Six ATTREX flights are scheduled to take place between mid-January and mid-March. Those will be followed by flights over Guam and Australia next year.
Drones are a cheaper way for NASA to pursue some aspects of its mission, compared to rocket launches. ATTREX is an example of the agency's Venture-class projects, which are designed to be implemented rapidly and at lower costs.
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