Global Hawk, NASA's Robotic Space Plane, Takes Flight (VIDEO)

06/14/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

*See video below*

EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- One of NASA's newest research jets soared high over the Pacific Ocean Tuesday on a 24-hour mission to study Earth's atmosphere.

Its pilot remained seated in an office chair in a windowless room in the Mojave Desert, monitoring the autonomous flight of the Global Hawk via an array of computer screens.

Global Hawks were designed to perform high-altitude, long-endurance reconnaissance and intelligence missions for the Air Force, which has turned over to NASA three versions built in the developmental process.

This month, NASA has begun putting one to work for the first time with flights over vast areas of the Pacific to demonstrate the scientific usefulness of the unmanned aircraft.

"It's never been used by a civilian agency, and it's never been used for Earth science," said David W. Fahey, a research physicist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Distinguished by its bulbous, whale-shaped nose, top-mounted engine and V-tail, the Global Hawk is 44 feet long and its wings span 116 feet