XCOR Tests New Prototype of Lunar Ascent Engine

XCOR Aerospace test fired a new version of a 7,500-pound-thrust liquid oxygen/methane engine being developed as a candidate ascent stage for the lunar lander NASA hopes to build next decade . XCOR of Mojave, Calif., is developing the engine under a $3.3 million subcontract to Alliant Techsystems.

The April 2 hot-fire test, lasting less than a second, was the first of the fully regeneratively cooled version of the engine. XCOR intends to eventually fire the new engine for durations of up to seconds, according to a company official. An earlier version of the engine used a heat-sink throat and water-cooled combustionchamber, limiting the engine’s total firing time.

“This is a significant milestone for the program,” XCOR Chief Executive Jeff Greason said in a statement. “The test results from the first engine gave us confidence we’re on the right track. This second-generation engine with a cooling system allows us to progress to longer engine runs.”

While NASA’s current plans call for using stable yet highly toxic hypergolic propellants for the lander that will be used to put astronauts on the Moon by 2020, the agency is funding research into so-called green alternatives, namely methane-fueled propulsion systems.

N.M. Spaceport Initiative Passes by Narrow Margin

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson hailed April 5 the apparent approval by residents of a southern rural county of a new tax that will help fund a planned commercial spaceport in the state.

“Based on unofficial results, the spaceport ballot initiative has passed,” Richardson said in a prepared statement. “…I’m proud that the people of Doa Ana County chose a high-tech and high-wage future, with better math and science education, and expanded opportunities for young men and women right here in New Mexico.”

Doa Ana County voters agreed to a 0.25-cent gross receipts tax, which proponents have said is necessary to raise the capital to fund infrastructure for Spaceport America as well as a math and science education program in the county school system. The tax is expected to generate about $6.8 million annually for 20 years.

The controversial measure barely passed, with a still-unofficial count of 8,947 for and 8,682 against, according to the Las Cruces Sun-News .

The facility is expected to be the home site for Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic company , which plans to offer suborbital trips into space for paying customers.

Gives Spacehab Time To Avoid Delisting

The Nasdaq stock exchange gave Spacehab Inc. 180 days April 4 to raise the price of its common stock to $1 or higher per share or face delisting , Spacehab said in an April 5 press release.

The Houston-based commercial space service provider has until Oct. 1 to raise its share price to at least $1 — and keep it there for a minimum of 10 consecutive trading days — or its securities will be removed from Nasdaq. Spacehab would be able to file an appeal should that happen, according to the release.

Spacehab’s common shares closed at $0.61 April 5.

Malaysian Firm Invests in Indian DTH Joint Venture

Astro All Asia Networks plc , a successful Malaysian satellite-television broadcaster, is investing in a new Indian direct-to-home (DTH) television operator to expand its programming reach, Astro announced April 5.

Through a wholly owned subsidiary, Astro has agreed to invest up to $166 million for a 20 percent equity stake in Sun Direct TV Private Ltd., an Indian company that in August 2006 received a license to provide DTH satellite television in India. Maran Group, an established Indian media company, will hold the remaining 80 percent of Sun Direct.

Sun Direct on March 2 received Indian regulatory approval for the joint venture. Indian regulations limit to 20 percent the non-Indian investment in domestic DTH providers.

The new company expects to provide satellite television services starting later this year via the Insat 4B telecommunications satellite, which was launched in March. Sun Direct forecasts that it will invest $670 million over the next five years to deploy its service and that it will be cash-flow positive in its sixth year of operations, Astro said.

“The Indian market offers 118 million television households,” Astro Chief Executive Robert Odendaal said in a statement. “At present, there are over 65 million pay-TV homes, and this market is expected to grow to over 150 million homes in the next decade. We believe the superior service offering of DTH platforms, coupled with the implementation of conditional-access systems by cable networks, will allow DTH services to expand rapidly in India.”

Astro is the biggest customer of satellite-fleet operator Measat Global of Malaysia. The Indian investment is subject to the approval of Astro’s shareholders.

THAAD Intercept Test Involved Other Systems

The U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) on April 5 conducted what it said was the first intercept test of its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System (THAAD) that involved other elements of the overall U.S. missile defense architecture.

In the test, conducted at the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Hawaii, the THAAD interceptor successfully hit a Scud type target missile that was launched from a mobile platform, the MDA said in an April 6 press release. The intercept occurred within the atmosphere over the ocean, the agency said.

The test was the third successful intercept in the current THAAD test program. Elements of the missile defense architecture that participated in the test included a radar aboard a U.S. Navy Aegis ship, the Command, Control, Battle Management and Communications system, and the Space-based Infrared System, according to the MDA.

Air Force Targets April 19 For GPS 3 Bid Solicitation

The U.S. Air Force plans to issue the formal request for proposals for the next generation of GPS navigation satellites April 19, according to an announcement posted April 6 on the Federal Business Opportunities Web site .

The Air Force expects to choose between teams led by Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co. to build the GPS 3 satellites in late 2007. Lockheed Martin announced April 5 that its design for the satellite system had completed an Air Force review. Boeing’s design is expected to undergo a similar review April 17-19, according to an official with that company.

Slated for launch starting in 2013, the GPS 3 satellites will offer more accurate, robust and jam-resistant signals than the navigation satellites currently on orbit.

Congressman Demands Answers from Google

U.S. Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.), chairman of the House Science and Technology investigations and oversight committee, is asking why Google Earth changed its satellite maps of New Orleans to depict the region prior to its devastation by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“If current Google Maps satellite imagery is to be believed, Hurricane Katrina never struck New Orleans, there was never any flooding and thousands of people do not need to be living in trailers because their homes are still habitable,” Miller wrote in a March 30 letter to Eric Schmidt, Google Inc.’s chairman and chief executive officer.

Miller told Schmidt he wanted to know why the change was made, when the satellite imagery for the New Orleans region was last updated and what imaging sources have been used to supply the satellite maps of New Orleans since Katrina struck Aug. 29, 2005.

New Horizons Probe Captures Images of Jupiter

NASA’s Pluto-bound New Horizons spacecraft recently captured infrared images of Jupiter that reveal unprecedented detail of the planet’s stormy atmosphere, including its Great Red Spot , NASA said in a March 30 press release.

The Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array (LEISA) camera took the images Feb. 27 from a distance of 2.9 million kilometers. The images have a resolution of about 175 kilometers per pixel, according to the press release.

The LEISA images were made visible using false color , a process that assigns visible colors to the otherwise invisible infrared images, the press release said.

Launched Jan. 19, 2006, the New Horizons spacecraft is studying Jupiter during a flyby on its way to a scheduled 2015 rendezvous with Pluto .

Identifies Issues With Accounting Procedures

Accountants for satellite-telephone operator Globalstar have found “material weakness” in the company’s accounting procedures and in the way Globalstar reports revenues from its annual customer-service contracts, Globalstar said April 2.

The company said in a submission to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) that it would add staff to its accounting division and upgrade its customer-billing software to address both problems.

Milpitas, Calif.-based Globalstar Inc. also said that on Oct. 1 it reduced its projections of how long its current satellite fleet will last from 39 to 27 months , incurring a depreciation charge booked in late 2006.

The ability of Globalstar’s existing 40-satellite constellation to provide service until a second-generation system is launched starting in late 2009 has been in doubt since the company’s February disclosure that hardware aboard the spacecraft that permits two-way communications is degrading more quickly than foreseen.

Globalstar is facing several lawsuits from shareholders who purchased Globalstar stock since the company’s November 2006 initial public offering on the U.S. Nasdaq exchange and suffered losses when the stock plummeted following the February announcement.

Globalstar said it intends to defend itself against these lawsuits.

The company has scheduled the launch of eight final first-generation satellites for May and June aboard two Russian Soyuz rockets. The addition of these satellites will help Globalstar maintain service but will not by itself remove the threat of reduced system availability starting in 2008 if the current on board degradation continues, Globalstar said.

The company said it is paying about $120 million for the two launches, including a 6.5 percent insurance premium to cover a launch failure. In keeping with Globalstar’s existing practice , the satellites will not be insured once they are in orbit.

Globalstar has 48 second-generation satellites on order from Alcatel Alenia Space of France and Italy under a contract valued at 671 million euros ($896 million). Satellite deliveries under the contract are expected to begin in the third quarter of 2009 and to continue to 2013. If Globalstar elects to accelerate production , all 48 satellites will be delivered by late 2010 and the contract price reduced by 28 million euros, the company said.

Globalstar has said it will be able to launch and insure these satellites — which are heavier than the first-generation models — for around $329 million, for a total second-generation constellation cost of about $1.2 billion. The company repeated that forecast in the April 2 SEC filing.

To keep within this budget, Globalstar will need to find launches that are substantially less expensive than the two Soyuz contracts it signed with the French-Russian Starsem organization.

This year’s launches are costing Globalstar about $15 million per satellite, including launch insurance. At that price, the 48-satellite second-generation constellation could be launched and insured for $720 million — bringing the capital expenditure to nearly $1.6 billion.

India Readies PSLV To Loft Italian Astronomy Satellite

The Indian Space Research Organis ation (ISRO) will place the Italy’s Agile scientific satellite in orbit April 23 in what is being billed as the agency’s first dedicated commercial launch of a foreign payload.

The launch from Satish Dhawan Space Centre at Sriharikota on India’s east coast will place the satellite in a 550-kilometer circular orbit with an inclination of 6 degrees relative to the equator. Agile, built for the Italian Space Agency by Carlo Gavazzi Space of Milan, will conduct high-energy astrophysics experiments and study gamma rays and X-rays.

In the past, foreign satellites weighing less than 100 kilograms have flown on ISRO rockets as secondary payloads for an undisclosed fee . Agile will be the primary fare-paying passenger aboard ISRO’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) in the upcoming launch, K.R. Sridharamurthy, executive director of Antrix Corp. , the commercial arm of ISRO, told Space N ews April 3.

At 365 kilograms, Agile will be the heaviest foreign payload launched by ISRO . The payload carrying capacity of the PSLV is 1,300 kilograms. For the upcoming flight, the rocket will not have its usual complement of six strap-on liquid boosters , ISRO spokesman S. Krishnamurthy said.

ISRO inked the $11 million Agile contract in January 2004, and had hoped to find another payload to utilize more of the launch vehicle’s capacity . However, no paying co-passenger could be found, although the vehicle will be carrying a 175-kilogram avionics package that ISRO hopes to validate for future PSLV missions, Krishnamurthy said.

Payloads scheduled for future flights aboard the PSLV include a small satellite under construction by Singapore University and a cluster of six nano-satellites being built by the University of Toronto, Canada, Sridharamurthy said.

Embry-Riddle Student Rocket Soars to Set Altitude Record

Students from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University have set a new altitude record for student-built rockets. Their sounding rocket, dubbed Icarus, reached an altitude of 60.48 kilometers in a flight March 22 from the Wallops Flight Facility, in Wallops Island, Va. , according to an April 2 press release from the Daytona Beach, Fla., university .

The two-stage Icarus rocket stood 4.8 meters tall and weighed 120.6 kilograms. Its first and second stages generated 3,500 pounds and 900 pounds of thrust, respectively. Telemetry from the vehicle and from NASA tracking radars indicate that the vehicle performed as designed, the press release said.

The eventual goal is to create a rocket that reaches space,” Mike Stackpole, a student who helped found Project Icarus in 2003, said in a prepared statement. Stackpole worked with other Embry-Riddle students from the Future Space Explorers and Developers Society on the project.

“The Embry-Riddle student-designed rocket was the most complex student project we have supported to date,” Phil Eberspeaker, c hief of NASA’s Sounding Rockets Program Office, said in a prepared statement.

Arianespace Tapped To Launch Optus D3 Satellite

Optus Networks of Australia has selected Arianespace to launch the Optus D3 telecommunications satellite in 2009 from Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport as either a co-passenger on an Ariane 5 heavy-lift rocket or as solo passenger aboard the Russian Soyuz vehicle, the Evry, France-based Arianespace launch consortium announced April 4.

A Soyuz launch pad at the French Guiana site is under construction, with an inaugural flight scheduled for early 2009.

The all Ku-band Optus D3, expected to weigh 2,500 kilograms at launch and to provide television programming from an orbital slot at 156 degrees east longitude, is a Star-2 satellite platform under construction by Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va.

Wins Approval for Stake in Satellite Maker

The European Commission announced April 4 that it has approved the purchase by Thales Group of Alcatel’s majority interest in satellite builder Alcatel Alenia Space, saying an investigation had concluded that the deal posed no antitrust-related problems despite the merged company’s strong position in satellite tube amplifiers.

The commission said the combined Thales-Alcatel Alenia Space is unlikely to use its tube-amplifier position to push competitors out of the market.

“This merger creates a complex vertical structure in an industry involving highly technical products but the Commission has investigated it thoroughly and is satisfied that the existing strong competition in the markets for telecommunications satellites and subsystems will not be adversely affected,” European Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes said in an April 4 statement accompanying the decision.

The deal with Alcatel Alenia Space also involves Italy’s Finmeccanica group, which has a 33 percent equity share in the satellite manufacturer and a 67 percent ownership of Telespazio, a specialist in satellite ground systems. Alcatel Alenia Space — and now Thales — has a 33 percent stake in Telespazio.

Harvard U. Recognizes Landsat-Based Program

An Idaho conservation program that uses Landsat imagery to track water loss in plants and soil has been honored by Harvard University with its Innovations in American Government Award , the Idaho Department of Water Resources (IDWR) said in an April 3 press release said.

The IDWR Mapping EvapoTranspiration with High Resolution and Internalized Calibration (METRIC) program uses digital images from Landsat satellites to help model the loss of water both from plant leaves and from the soil — a process called evapotranspiration.

Landsat images are the only ones available that provide the information necessary to analyze evapo transpiration data, according to the release. IDWR and the University of Idaho developed METRIC in 2000 as a less expensive, more efficient means to monitor the phenomenon.

METRIC was selected as a Top 50 program out of nearly 1,000 applicants by Harvard University’s Ash Institute.

Italian Region to Assist in Emergency Satcom Demo

The regional government of Piedmont, Italy, has agreed to test a satellite-based emergency-communications system developed by Telespazio of Rome and the European Space Agency (ESA), Telespazio announced March 30.

The Satellite Adaptor project, to be conducted with the assistance of the regional civil protection agency, will test an integrated communications system that enables first responders to maintain broadband data and voice contact with their operations centers regardless of the technical transmission standard used locally, Telespazio said.

The industrial team working on the project includes Alcatel Alenia Space of France and Italy , and Indra and Hispasat of Spain.

Chrysler Inks Deal with Sirius for Backseat TV

Certain 2008 model Jeep, Dodge and Chrysler vehicles will soon be equipped to offer family focused satellite television programming from Sirius Satellite Radio of New York. The programming will be aimed at young children riding in the back seats, Chrysler Group said in a March 29 press release.

Sirius Radio’s Backseat TV system receives television broadcasts using an internal satellite video receiver with two roof-mounted antennas.

The Backseat TV offerings will include programming from Nickelodeon, the Disney Channel and Cartoon Network that can be simultaneously displayed on video screens in the second and third rows of seats. The option is available for $470, including the satellite-compatible television and one year’s service, with the separate purchase of Chrysler’s Rear Seat Entertainment System and Sirius Radio. Continuing the service after the first year requires a $7 per month subscription plus a regular Sirius Satellite Radio subscription for nearly $13 a month.

The 2008 Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan minivans will be the first vehicles to offer the Sirius Backseat TV option.

Raytheon Joins Bidders for
Ground Station Support Work

Raytheon Intelligence and Information Systems of Garland, Texas, announced March 28 that it plans to lead an industry team competing for a seven-year contract to provide operations and maintenance services for U.S. Air Force satellite ground stations.

Harris Corp. of Melbourne, Fla., has been the incumbent contractor on the Operational Space Services and Support and the Mission Communications Operations and Maintenance contracts since 2000. That work is being combined into the Network and Space Operations and Maintenance contract, which Harris plans to compete for as well, according to Harris spokesman Sleighton Meyer.

ITT Corp. of White Plains, N.Y., and Honeywell of Morris Township, N.J., also are expected to compete for the contract, according to industry sources. Tom Glover, a spokesman for ITT, declined to comment, as did Jim O’Leary, a Honeywell spokesman.

O’Leary said Honeywell is “working to determine how the company’s services could best support this program.”

Lockheed To Build FCS Centralized Control Device

Boeing and SAIC have tapped Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control of Dallas to provide a hand-held device that will enable U.S. Army soldiers to control a variety of functions for the Future Combat System (FCS). The contract is worth $35 million through 2014, according to a March 29 Boeing news release .

Lockheed Martin will build the Centralized Controller, which will allow soldiers to command and control FCS unmanned aerial and ground vehicles as well as some functions on manned ground vehicles , according to the Boeing news release. The device will enable “superior situational awareness, training, logistics and medical functions, ” the release said.

“The controller will consolidate what traditionally would be numerous disparate controllers into a single controller, which will simplify logistics and empower the soldier while reducing his load,” Dennis Muilenburg, Boeing vice president and general manager for combat systems and FCS program manager, said in the news release. “Overall, it will allow a Centralized Controller-equipped soldier to remotely control one or more of the nearly 750 systems within each brigade at any particular time.”

Boeing of Chicago and San Diego-based SAIC are the lead contractors on the FCS program.

Pratt & Whitney To Test NASA
Propulsion Systems

Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne will test propulsion systems for NASA’s current and future manned spacecraft systems under a one-year, $80 million contract, the space agency said March 30 .

The cost-plus-award-fee contract includes four, one-year-extension options , according to a NASA press release.

Under the contract, Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne of Canoga Park, Calif., will test propulsion systems for the space shuttle and for Project Constellation, which includes the hardware that NASA will use to return to the Moon by 2020. Hardware assurance and engineering support also are included under the contract .

New Zealand To Host Tracking Station for ATV

The inaugural flight of Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) cargo vessel to the international space station will be tracked by a transportable ground station in New Zealand following a March 29 agreement between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the New Zealand government, ESA announced.

The tracking facility will permit ESA to maintain contact with the ATV following its launch aboard a European Ariane 5 ES vehicle from the Guiana Space Center, French Guiana. The Ariane 5 is scheduled to place the ATV into a 260-kilometer circular orbit. The ATV then will use its own propulsion system to make its way to the space station and dock.

The ATV’s separation from the Ariane 5 ES will occur over the South Pacific region after a third ignition of the rocket’s upper stage.

The launch is currently scheduled for late this year.

ESA is investing more than 200,000 euros ($267,200) to prepare the New Zealand site for the arrival of the tracking station. The investment includes adapting the access road, installing a concrete platform and adding power and telecommunications services to the site, located near the southern coast of New Zealand’s South Island.

The tracking and telemetry station is being leased by the French space agency, CNES, which runs the Guiana Space Center, and will be operated under CNES contract by OTB-Overberg Test Range of South Africa.

Stern Taps Nobel Laureate As Top Science Advisor

Alan Stern, NASA’s newly installed science chief, has tapped the Nobel Prize-winning astrophysicist John Mather to serve as his top scientific advisor, the U.S. space agency announced April 2.

Mather, a 30-year veteran of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., was a co-recipient of the 2006 Nobel Prize for physics for shedding new light on the Big Bang with the help of measurements from the Cosmic Background Explorer spacecraft.

As the head of the NASA Science Mission Directorate’s newly created Office of the Chief Scientist, Mather — backed by a small staff — will assist Stern in “setting flight mission and research budget priorities for all NASA science programs,” the news release said.

Mather effectively replaces Paul Hertz, who joined NASA as a senior scientist in 2000 and had been serving as the mission directorate’s chief scientist under Stern’s predecessor, Mary Cleave, who retired in March. In contrast to Mather, Hertz had no staff.

Hertz has been named director the newly created Science Policy, Process and Ethics Office. In his new role, Hertz “will ensure NASA’s science research programs are conducted with the highest standards and effectiveness in accordance with NASA’s principles of science merit, open competition, and peer review,” the release said.

In a separate personnel move, Stern named Jon A. Morse to serve as the director of the agency’s astrophysics division. Morse is a Goddard scientist who has been detailed to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy for about a year.

Stern, a planetary scientist who is taking a leave of absence from the Pluto-bound New Horizons mission, among others, in order to run NASA’s $5 billion science portfolio, started his new job April 2.

Prior to being tapped for the NASA job, Stern was serving as principle investigator on a proposed Mars mission called the Great Escape, one of two finalists selected early this year for a 2011 Mars Scout flight opportunity.

Stern has had to recuse himself from that upcoming selection, but NASA still intends to give the Great Escape a fair shake. James Burch, Stern’s San Antonio -based former colleague at the Southwest Research Institute, has taken over as principal investigator for that mission.

Cornell Student Team Wins Nano-Satellite Competition

A student team from Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., will build a nano-satellite for a possible launch after winning a design competition sponsored by the U.S. Air Force and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA).

The two-year Nanosat-4 Phase 1 design competition featured 11 teams from different universities across the United States , the AIAA said in an April 2 press release.

Contest entries were reviewed by a panel of judges that included experts from Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda. Md.; Northrop Grumman Corp. of Los Angeles; Jackson & Tull of Washington ; Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va.; and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge .

Designs were judged on technical competence, maturity and spaceflight qualifications as well as educational impact.

The winning team will now begin building Nanosat-4 in preparation for a possible launch opportunity.

Northrop to Support Sensor-Use Simulations

Northrop Grumman Corp. of Los Angeles recently signed an agreement with U.S. Joint Force Command under which it will provide modeling and simulation facilities to help the military experiment with new systems and methods for tasking sensors more quickly, according to an April 4 company news release.

Reducing the time needed to task intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets will “enhance warfighters’ situational awareness and increase the chance of mission success,” the news release said.

Northrop Grumman’s Cyber Warfare Integration Network (CWIN) will generate a virtual battlefield environment for Joint Forces Command so that it can “better evaluate weapon systems and tactics,” according to the news release.

The military will use CWIN to experiment with integrating different types of sensors, such as radar and infrared, aboard different types of platforms, according to the news release.

U.S., European Agencies Ink Mission Support Pact

The U.S. and European space agencies have signed an umbrella agreement designed to reduce the red tape involved in providing each other with tracking, telemetry, spacecraft trajectory and other mission support operations, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced April 2.

Under the Network and Operations Cross-Support agreement signed March 21 in Washington, ESA and NASA will no longer need to craft Letters of Agreement before providing support for missions that are not already covered by specific agreements.

ESA Operations Director Gaele Winters and William H. Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for space operations, signed the agreement.

ESA said the first application of the new agreement will be the scheduled launch later this year of NASA’s Dawn satellite to asteroids, and the Phoenix mission to Mars. ESA is providing tracking services from two 15-meter-diameter antennas located at the Guiana Space Center in French Guiana and Perth, Australia.

Lockheed Martin Cleared To Begin MUOS Production

Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif., has been cleared to begin building the U.S. Navy’s next generation of mobile communications satellites , according to Steve Tatum, a company spokesman.

The approval follows the recent completion of a critical design review on the Mobile User Objective System (MUOS), Tatum said in a written response to questions.

The review, overseen by more than 250 representatives from the Navy, Army, Air Force, and U.S. Strategic Command, validated the detailed MUOS design to ensure it meets user requirements, according to a company news release dated April 4. The MUOS satellites are expected to begin replacing the existing UHF Follow-On constellation in 2010.

Unmanned Aircraft Set To Join NASA Research Fleet

A modified Predator B unmanned aircraft that NASA acquired in November from San Diego-based General Atomics Aeronautical Systems will join the agency’s fleet at Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., this spring, NASA said in a March 29 press release.

The aircraft, adapted for civilian use and dubbed Ikhana, will be used primarily by NASA’s Suborbital Science Program for climate studies. It can operate for 30 hours at a time, reach altitudes of 12,000 meters, and has a payload-carrying capacity of more than 180 kilograms internally and 900 kilograms externally on wing pods. Some of the sensors it will carry are duplicates of Earth science instruments operating aboard spacecraft, NASA said.

NASA is responsible for outfitting and testing the aircraft, the agency said in a written response to questions provided by Dryden spokeswoman Beth Hagenauer.

“Piloted aircraft are limited by crew duty requirements that generally restrict science flights to 10 hours or less,” Brent Colbeigh, Dryden’s project manager for Ikhana, said in a prepared statement. “Unmanned aircraft also are more suitable for remote missions spanning open oceans or the polar regions, where the lack of nearby emergency landing locations increases the risk for piloted missions.”

To enable Ikhana to operate in remote regions, NASA has purchased a mobile ground control station and a satellite communications system for use with the aircraft.

NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate also will use Ikhana to perform advanced aircraft systems research and technology development. One of the early aeronautics research projects will examine the use of fiber optics for wing-shape sensing and control and for measuring structural loads.

The U.S. Forest Service hopes to use Ikhana in remote areas of the western United States this summer to monitor and study wildfires. NASA and the Forest Service are working with the Federal Aviation Administration to license the aircraft for that application, the press release said.