NASA Drones Spy On Hurricanes
September 16, 2013

NASA Sends Drones To Spy On Hurricanes

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

As this year’s hurricane season approaches its peak, NASA has started using two converted, unmanned military spy planes to gather information on weather patterns that might fuel major storms in the coming weeks and months.

Both capable of flying for up to 30 hours at an altitude of 69,000 feet, the pair of Global Hawk drones is an integral part of the agency's five-year Hurricane and Severe Storm Sentinel (HS3) Mission dedicated to investigating hurricanes and tropical storms. Starting last year, the drones have been deployed during the most active months of the season – August and September – which is said to run from June to the end of November.

"It opens a window into a storm we did not have before," Scott Braun, a research meteorologist on the project, told the AFP. "Before, we had short snapshots of individual storms at various times” using piloted weather planes and satellites."

"By being able to view a storm continuously over a 20 hour period, you have a longer window to capture it," Braun added. "This experiment will allow a better understanding of the processes that govern the intensification in the formation of storms."

Despite leaps in technology and analysis capabilities in recent years, the ability to predict the force and extent of storms has improved very little. NASA scientists said better forecasts would help authorities make major decisions, such as if and when they should evacuate people in the storm's path. Almost 100 million Americans live within 50 miles of a coast, putting them at a relatively high risk of being directly affected by a hurricane.

The two unmanned drones have two primary scientific missions: to gather information on how thunderstorms and rain intensify a storm, and to study the role of the Saharan Air Layer in the intensity of tropical cyclones. This air mass forms over the Sahara desert during the summer months and moves over the tropical Atlantic, picking up moisture.

Scientists are unsure of the impact of the African air mass on the severity of tropical cyclones. Some experts believe that the dry air plays a role in weakening a storm by blocking rising winds, while others suspect that the phenomenon actually makes storms stronger.

NASA, along with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), has said it hopes that the 30-million-dollar program that will collect information during three Atlantic hurricane seasons will provide some answers.

Each drone has been outfitted with a laser for studying the makeup of the clouds, a microwave system to scan the heart of a storm, GPS systems radar and other instruments. The drones' instruments are capable of determining temperature, humidity and atmospheric pressure several times per second.

"We are really interested in trying to get measurements as close as we can to the surface of the ocean," said NOAA scientist Gary Wick.

NASA scientists said they see the drones as filling the information gap between satellites and manned planes. The National Hurricane Center has already used data from the program in its forecasts, most recently for tracking tropical storm Gabrielle as it churned up the East Coast last week.