Saturday, April 24, 1999

Photo by General Atomics
ALTUS II flies over the southern California desert.

Research plane
set for test flight
today from Kauai

The Altus II will gather
data on how cloud cover
affects global warming

By Anthony Sommer


BARKING SANDS, Kauai -- Scientists planned to send NASA's ALTUS II unmanned research airplane aloft today to check out its science equipment, in preparation for landmark global-warming studies scheduled to begin here next week.

Between Monday and May 19, ALTUS II is to fly six to eight missions from the U.S. Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility on the western tip of Kauai to gather data on the effects of cloud cover.

About 50 scientists and technicians from three Department of Energy laboratories, a dozen universities, three NASA centers and four private companies have been at the Pacific Missile Range preparing ALTUS II.

They are operating from the hangar used by NASA's Pathfinder and Pathfinder Plus, which set altitude records in 1997 and 1998 flying from Kauai.

Scientists are attempting to predict future trends in global warming by using the flights to fill a large gap in their data. The effect of clouds on shielding Earth from solar radiation, and in providing a blanket over the planet which prevents nighttime cooling, are both major unknowns.

The twin turbocharged, remote-controlled ALTUS II can reach altitudes of 65,000 feet and has stayed aloft for 28 hours, the world record for an unmanned airplane. It will carry radiometers and laser devices to measure how much solar energy is reflected off of wispy cirrus clouds.

A much lower-tech, piloted Twin Otter airplane with identical measuring devices will fly at only 5,000 feet directly below the ALTUS II to gather data for comparison and contrast.

ALTUS II received a thumbs-up after a successful test on Monday with 350 pounds of ballast in place of scientific equipment. Today's test was to check out the measuring devices and transmitting equipment in both ALTUS II and the Twin Otter.

"We don't know if all the data links are ready yet," Will Bolton, project manager for Sandia National Laboratories, said yesterday. He said ALTUS II looked like it would be ready for testing today, but work was going more slowly on the Twin Otter.

Scientists on the ground will know immediately whether ALTUS II's measuring equipment is working because one out of every five measurements will be transmitted back to the Pacific Missile Range in real time. The majority of the data will be stored and studied by computers later, Bolton said.

The test flights will be 50 to 60 miles out from the missile range's large training area northwest of Kauai. Test flights will be flown in a variety of conditions ranging from clear skies to heavy overcast, Bolton said.

In the future, ALTUS II is scheduled to be flown in the western and central Pacific. The testing is being conducted in the tropics because that is where the most cloud formation takes place.

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