The fighter jet brought quietly to Moffett Field a few months ago isn't a toy for Google executives, say NASA officials, but in fact will help the agency collect atmospheric data and fight wildfires.
But some observers remain skeptical, noting that the jet, while luucrative for NASA Ames, has yet to collect any data.
The European-built Dornier Alpha Jet, a sleek two-seater capable of 600 miles per hour, is one of five planes belonging to H211 LLC, a company owned by Google executives Sergey Brin, Larry Page and Eric Schmidt. Besides the Alpha Jet, H211's fleet includes two jumbo jets stationed at Moffett and two Gulfstream Vs stationed at San Jose Airport.
Officials say the Alpha Jet, however, can do what the other planes cannot: fulfill the terms of a lease with NASA Ames, signed in August 2007, that allows H211's private planes to land at Moffett Federal Airfield. In exchange, the company pays NASA more than $1.3 million a year and lets the agency outfit its planes with scientific instruments.
NASA officials admitted Monday that so far no special scientific instruments have been fitted to any H211 planes, after hundreds of flights and more than year of allowing them to fly out of Moffett. The only equipment used on them thus far is handheld cameras, said Steve Zornetzer, deputy director of NASA Ames, in an e-mail.
The cameras were used to take footage of the Aurigid meteor shower on Aug. 31, 2007 for the SETI Institute. That was the last scientific mission for H211.
As for the money, it already helped NASA Ames close a $7 million deficit for Moffett runway operations last year, Zornetzer said. The Alpha Jet brings even more revenue for NASA Ames, he said, although he wouldn't give specifics.
Zornetzer added that failing to pay for runway operations could threaten Ames' control of the runway -- a bad development for local residents given the Federal Aviation Administration's eagerness to allow cargo flights there.
But Lenny Siegel, director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight, a group involved with Moffett's restoration, thought the arrangement could be setting a bad precedent.
"If anyone can use the airfield to help Ames overcome its deficit, who knows what will end up there," he said.
City Hall officials were less vigorous in their criticism. Council member Jac Siegel said the issue is between Ames and Google. Council member Laura Macias expressed concern, saying the arrangement is "not something that I can feel really good about."
When dealing with local businesses, she said, "It's always a balance. I think in this case it's a little bit too cozy."
The existance of H211's Alpha Jet was revealed publicly for the first time in a Voice story last week. Zornetzer said the jet was purchased in December 2007 after it was realized that H211's other planes couldn't be modified, due to FAA regulations, to hold the scientific equipment required under the lease agreement. For technical reasons, the FAA restrictions don't apply to the Alpha Jet.
The fact that four of the five H211 planes won't serve much of a purpose to NASA's mission won't keep them out of Moffett, Zornetzer said. According to the original lease agreement, the planes were supposed to be fitted with the scientific instruments by August of this year.
Zornetzer said the Alpha Jet is now undergoing a major revamp -- resulting in a quieter engine and a payload of instruments built and paid for by NASA -- before it begins flights out of Moffett this spring. It has been in Seattle off and on to receive the modifications, he said.
"This particular Alpha Jet is being converted from military to civilian use," he said. "Its turbo-fan engine will be stage III compliant; it will not be noisy when done."
Atmospheric data from the Alpha Jet's payload will be collected by the earth science division at NASA Ames led by Stephen Hipskind. The plane can fly in and out of Moffett as the Google executives see fit. Zornetzer noted that H211 made up only 1 percent of the 19,000 flights in and out of Moffett last year.
The Alpha Jet's NASA payload will also include equipment to collect data on wildfires: high resolution cameras, hyper-spectral analysis instruments and an infrared detector. NASA has an unmanned aircraft called the Ikhana that collects similar data.