A high-flying robotic drone that can stay airborne for 30 hours at a stretch is part of a fleet of NASA aircraft heading into the field next month to study hurricanes in the making.
Information collected by Global Hawk, an unmanned aerial vehicle now moonlighting for science in addition to its military missions, is expected to give researchers new insights about why some storms become hurricanes while others sputter out.
"It's game-changing in the sense that we're going to be able to have a sustained look at a storm for a long time," said Ramesh Kakar, NASA program scientist for the Genesis and Rapid Intensification Processes, or GRIP, experiment.
"A lot can happen during that time period," Kakar told Discovery News.
Previous aircraft forays in hurricane zones were limited to two to four hours at a shot to prevent pilot fatigue. Global Hawk, which will be operated by ground control teams at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Facility in California, doesn't have that problem.
"We're very excited about the opportunity to use this plane," Kakar said.
Joining Global Hawk for the GRIP campaign are a NASA DC-8 and a WB-57, both veterans of the agency's last major hurricane field study in 2001. The aircraft will carry a total of 15 instruments, including dropsondes which will take measurements as they fall through the atmosphere to the ocean surface, and an advanced microwave sounder that can make three-dimensional maps of temperatures, water vapor and the liquid water content of clouds.
The goal of the program is to unravel the details of how tropical storms form and grow. Scientists know that 10 percent to 20 percent of the easterly waves forming off the west coast of Africa become hurricanes, according to GRIP researcher Scott Braun, with NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. But they don't know why those few become hurricanes and the rest dissipate.
Data collected by the aircraft instruments will be correlated with satellite observations from Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission, or TRMM, which can help pinpoint locations of powerful thunderstorms; CloudSat, which collects cloud altitude, temperature and rainfall intensity; and Aqua, which has an atmospheric sounder used to determine temperature, air pressure, precipitation, cloud ice content, convection and sea surface temperatures.
In addition, aircraft and collaborative experiments from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) are being coordinated with NASA's GRIP project.
"It's quite possible that at any given time we'll have five or six aircraft flying in the same airspace," Kakar said.
The team has been running simulations based on last season's hurricane tracks to figure out when and where to deploy aircraft and how to coordinate the research. GRIP's six-week field work over the Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea begins Aug. 15.
The DC-8, which flies at altitudes up to 40,000 feet, will be based out of Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport; the WB-57, which can fly over storms at altitudes of about 55,000 feet, will be staged from Ellington Field, near NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston; and NASA Global Hawk, which can reach 65,000 feet in altitude, will take off and land from California. The NSF work will be staged from an aircraft based at St. Croix in the Virgin Islands and NOAA's P-3 aircraft are flying out of Tampa, Fla.