NASA Deploying Global Hawk Drones for Storm Studies [Video]

NASA Deploying Global Hawk Drones for studying storms

NASA officials are currently involved in deploying a series of weather reconnaissance devices to study the strength and pattern of storm movements, in a bid to potentially enhance storm forecast systems. The probes have already been successfully launched, using Global Hawk drones, which were originally designed for military operations. Many in the scientific community believe the ability to more accurately predict the intensity and duration of an emerging storm could help to save lives.

Global Hawk Drones

The Global Hawk drones are described as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Originally designed by Ryan Aeronautical, the UAV model is capable of surveying tens of thousands of square miles each day, flying at altitudes of up to 65,000 feet, with a maximum endurance of 31 hours.

NASA was granted two Global Hawk vehicles in 2007, after the United States Air Force no longer required their services. NASA deployed the UAVs in 2009 to conduct scientific research at high-altitudes over Earth. During 2010, the space agency used the drones for Genesis and Rapid Intensification Processes (GRIP), a range of Earth field experiments utilized to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the lifecycles of hurricanes.

Meanwhile, Northrop Grumman, who purchased Ryan Aeronautical in 1999, have also developed civilian uses for some of their Global Hawk drones, including first response and global relief efforts. The U.S. Air Force had implemented the models to survey the aftermath of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, which struck Japan during 2011.

The Global Hawk drones now fall under the umbrella of the Hurricane and Severe Storm Sentinel (HS3) program, which involves a five year mission to acquire a number of storm and hurricane measurements, collected over a sustained period of time.

One of the primary hurdles in the space agency’s previous endeavors, in attempting to study hurricane formation and activity, was the limited number of observations made. The Global Hawk drones, however, are ideal for HS3 mission parameters, since they are capable of remaining in the skies for protracted periods at extremely high altitudes.

Dropsonde Measurements

During Sep. 4, one of NASA’s Global Hawk drones deployed dropsondes into the heart of the storm. Dropsondes are small, expendable sensor devices, developed by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). Once

NCAR GPS dropsonde released by Global Hawk drones
Image showing the capabilities of NCAR dropsondes, including its array of sensor measurements

they are deployed, the onboard sensors will then study a number of atmospheric conditions, including pressure, temperature and humidity (PTH).

As the dropsondes are released into the eye of the storm, a parachute is deployed to increase the device’s stability, and successive measurements are distributed back to the aircraft, via radio transmission. GPS tracking is also utilized to determine where and when the dropsonde was release.

Chris Naftel, the Global Hawk Project Manager at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center, confirmed that 80 dropsondes were released during one of the latest missions, helping the National Hurricane Center to investigate Tropical Storm Gabrielle:

“During this flight, the National Hurricane Center upgraded the tropical system to Tropical Storm Gabrielle and acknowledged the data that they are getting real time from our aircraft on their website.”

This year will represent the second occasion that NASA has launched their Global Hawk drones, which were dispatched from Virginia to investigate the storms approaching the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean, originating off the coast of the African continent.

Path adopted by Global Hawk drone during Tropical Gabrielle Storm
Path taken by the Global Hawk drone during its Sep. 4 mission

Paul Newman, the deputy project scientist on the mission, claims they are interested in determining why some storms demonstrate extreme intensities, whereas others fail to intensify at all, and eventually fizzle out. Newman states the team to have made huge leaps over the past 20 years, in terms of monitoring and forecasting a storm’s movements, but they have gained little knowledge of why storms exhibit wildly different intensities.

The Saharan Air Layer

In order to learn more about the perceived differences in storm intensity, NASA needs to comprehend the role that a number of key factors might play in storm formation, including thunderstorms. The team remains unsure

Sahara Air Layer moving across from African Continent
Saharan Air Layer (SAL) shown sweeping across from the shores of the African Continent

as to whether thunderstorms are merely symptoms of the storm, or part of the trigger for intensifying the phenomenon.

However, one of the primary areas of contention centers around the Saharan Air Layer. The Saharan Air Layer is a dry, warm layer of the atmosphere, comprised of significant amounts of dust and rises over the dense marine air of the Atlantic Ocean.

Scientists have conflicting opinions as to whether the Sahara Air Layer contributes towards elevating storm intensity, or whether it negates the process altogether. According to Time, a research meteorologist working from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Scott Braun, had this to say on the issue that has divided so many scientific minds:

“There’s a bit of a debate in terms of how important it is, one way or the other.”

The project is due to finish in 2014, after the final series of flights in August. Ultimately, after accumulating three years worth of data, NASA is hoping to improve their understanding of the intensity of storm configurations. The team’s deployment of Global Hawk drones for the study of storms, sweeping in from the Atlantic Ocean, could prove to be invaluable, life-saving missions.

By: James Fenner

NASA Global Hawk Mission Update

NASA HS3 Website Link

NASA Update on Global Hawk

NASA’s GRIP Website Link

Pacific Air Forces Website

Time News Link

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