Flights offer chance for unique high-altitude research

Posted: Tuesday, October 12, 2004

FAIRBANKS - Scientists are using a high-altitude Proteus aircraft to fly research missions over the North Slope.

The Proteus will take measurements to be used in models on global climate change.

University researchers, U.S. Department of Energy officials and employees of Mojave, Calif.-based Scaled Composites are taking part in the research.

The Proteus was designed by famed aviator Burt Rutan. It has an all-composite airframe. Its main wing is on the rear of the aircraft, which is balanced by a smaller forward wing.

The flights began Friday from Eielson Air Force Base and are to continue through October.

The flights represent a unique chance to transport a large group of climate-measuring instruments into a high-altitude setting, said Will Bolton, a manager at the Energy Department laboratory involved in the research.

"This is probably the most complete set of instruments that have ever been assembled for this purpose," Bolton told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

The Eielson flights are the second of a three-site tour. In 2002, the Proteus crew flew several research trips out of a site near the Kansas-Oklahoma border. The team will head to Australia for a series of flights in 2006.

Most of the instruments on board are designed to measure the conditions in and around the highest clouds, which have been difficult to monitor with traditional climate change models designed to look 50 years ahead, Bolton said.

"With some of the models, there's been a difference by as much as a factor of three," said Bolton, department manager at Sandia National Laboratories in California.

Scaled Composites built the Proteus in 1998 with the original goal of using it to slowly hover over a large city for telecommunications purposes, said Chuck Coleman, a Scaled Composites engineer and one of the two pilots flying the North Slope.

With its long, slender wings and high lift-to-drag ratio, the Proteus is capable of sustaining altitudes of about 63,000 feet, almost twice as high as the maximum altitude capability for commercial airliners.

Scientists soon developed broader purposes for Proteus other than telecommunications and the aircraft became part of the Department of Energy's Atmospheric Radiation Measurement-Unmanned Aerospace Vehicle program, headed by Bolton.

Climate-measuring instruments are mounted on nearly every part of the Proteus as Coleman and Robert Waldmiller fly from Eielson to the North Slope and slowly travel between Barrow and Deadhorse.

Many of the tools use lasers to collect data. One device mounted to the bottom of a wing sends a laser through a cloud below and measures the amount of light that reflects back.

"It gives you an idea of the optimal density, how opaque the cloud is," Bolton said.

Another device captures ice crystals and moves them on a piece of tape in front of a tiny camera.

All of the devices are connected to an on-board computer, enabling scientists to download data once the plane lands.

The Department of Energy's goal for the research is to help answer policy questions such as whether the world's carbon dioxide emissions are too high, Bolton said.

For all its high-tech design, the Proteus does not provide much in the way of pilot comfort, said Waldmiller, who earned the chance to the fly the aircraft while participating in its design. The plane lacks creature comforts, such as a bathroom, and features a fairly cramped cockpit.

"Once you get in there and all strapped in, it's about as much space as flying as a passenger on a commercial airliner," Waldmiller said.

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