Generally, people are prone to thinking that the military has a very tight relationship with technologies, keeping for themselves all those devices they use to do their job, devices which in some cases hit the civilian applications market only a few years after having been thoroughly used by the men in uniform.
In some cases though, it is nice to see how military technology can be made available also for scientific use.
This is the case with Global Hawk, an unmanned aircraft initially designed by Northrop Grumman for the US Department of Defense, a vehicle we mentioned on these pages more than once. Recently, a particular version of this aircraft, carrying scientific equipment, has been used in cooperation with NASA for a test run, in a first test flight lasting over 82 hours. This research project, called GloPac (Global Pacific Hawk Program) is aimed at studying conditions of the air over the Arctic and Pacific oceans.
The vehicle is equipped with devices such as laser hygrometers which can detect the level of water vapor in the air, to point towards the clouds to analyze their consistency and features, or to measure the presence of microwaves emitted by oxygen molecules in the atmosphere. Water vapor, for example, is a powerful greenhouse gas, and its presence at high altitudes is a sign of pollution from gases that increase the Earth’s temperature.
Global Hawk can fly at altitudes between 14000 and 20000 meters, and from up there it is capable of gathering data related to the presence of greenhouse gasses and to the level of substances that damage the ozone layer, also measuring the level of dust (such as for example the ashes released by the Icelandic volcano a few months ago).
This enables scientists to monitor the health of higher layers of the atmosphere, gathering information that can prove vital also to monitor air quality at lower heights. Thanks to the endurance of its missions, Global Hawk can also be used to measure short-term phenomena at high altitude.
In the long run, scientists would like to have a better overview of the Polar Vortex, a cyclone located on the North Pole, analyzing which they hope to understand the dynamics that regulate the atmosphere in Northern latitudes.