Roland Piquepaille's Technology Trends
How new technologies are modifying our way of life

dimanche 25 juillet 2004

NASA's Proteus aircraft is an unusual plane designed by Burt Rutan, from Scaled Composites. It is 56-feet-long, 78-feet-wide and flies at almost 70,000 feet high to study air quality and improve weather forecasts. And who's one of the pilots? This is 63-year-old Michael Melvill who flew up to 60 miles high in June 2004 aboard SpaceShipOne, reports the Hampton Roads Daily Press, Virginia, in this article. And Proteus is apparently much easier to control than SpaceShipOne. "It's like a big old Cadillac," he said Friday while Proteus received prep work inside a Langley hangar. "It's very quiet. The engine is way in the back." But if it feels like driving an old Cadillac, Proteus carries the next generation of climate observation instruments which will be deployed on new satellites launched starting in 2006.

Here are selected excerpts of the Daily Press article.

Michael Melvill flies unusual airplanes.
The one he's flying this week looks more like a Klingon warship from Star Trek than an airplane from the 21st century. Proteus is 56-feet-long with a massive wingspan of 78 feet, which helps it get more than 2 miles higher than most airliners.
Its current mission, based at NASA Langley Research Center, is to fly 10 miles above the Earth with atmosphere-measuring instruments that will someday improve pollution controls and the accuracy of weather forecasts.

Here is how looks this unusual aircraft. Below are two photographs coming from this photo collection, available from NASA Dryden Flight Research Center.

Proteus over New Mexico Here is the Proteus plane accompanied by a NASA's T-34 over Las Cruces, New Mexico, in March 2002 (Credit: Lori Losey).
Proteus over Southern California And here is the Proteus plane flying over Southern California in March 2003 (Credit: Carla Thomas).

Here are some details about Proteus mission.

Proteus carries the next generation of climate observation instruments - five devices that measure water, temperature, carbon dioxide and ozone in the atmosphere. Named after the Greek god who could change his shape, Proteus can be adjusted to different lengths and widths depending on its payload.
Bill Smith, NASA Langley's principal investigator for the project, said the test instruments eventually will be placed on satellites. Since the instruments aboard Proteus are more sophisticated than the ones currently circling the Earth on satellites, they should help forecasters produce four-day weather forecasts with the same accuracy as two-day forecasts today. The first instrument is scheduled to go into space in late 2006.

But how do you compared data obtained by Proteus and by current observation satellites?

By flying under climate-observing satellites with similar instrumentation, Proteus helps scientists compare satellite data with information recorded by the instruments aboard the plane, said Vickie Connors, a NASA Langley scientist in charge of one of the instruments.
"The satellite system gives you a nice overview on a longtime scale," Connors said. "But the satellite can't go through the atmosphere like a plane can and give you more detail. We can fill in the gaps." The goal is to pinpoint differences between manmade and natural pollutants, such as traffic smog and forest fire smoke, to better understand what kinds of clean-air measures will best improve the environment.

For more information about the Proteus aircraft, here is a link to its Fact Sheets.

And if you want to know more about Melvill's very long and impressive list of flying achievements, please read "63-Year Old Becomes First Private Astronaut," published by, Texas.

Sources: Dave Schleck, Hampton Roads Daily Press, Virginia, July 24, 2004; NASA Dryden Flight Research Center; Tucker Sutherland,, Texas, June 22, 2004

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