NASA’s hurricane squad

By Alejandro Freixes, CCNN Head Writer

NASA doesn’t just do cool space missions. Did you know that it also helps us keep track of hurricanes, using two unmanned Global Hawk aircraft that fly by themselves without any pilot inside?

Meet NASA’s Hurricane and Severe Storm Sentinel airborne mission – or HS3 – that investigates storms across the Atlantic. This year marks the first time that NASA will be sending out two of its Global Hawks with extra futuristic technology on board. Scott Braun, the HS3 mission principal investigator and research meteorologist (someone who studies weather), says that having two aircraft rather than just one will also give them a lot more information to predict where mega storms might be developing.

nasa hurricane watchHS3, however, isn’t just interested in the storms of today and the near future. It’s also looking to understand why these storms develop, especially in the Atlantic Ocean. The more we can understand destructive things like hurricanes, tornadoes, and storms in, the more we can prepare when they show up and damage the neighborhood.

How do the Global Hawks measure all these wild storms? I mean, they don’t just lick their finger and put it in the air to see what direction the wind is blowing. Well, this year they’ll be using a blend of radar – radio waves – and microwave instruments to test the inside of a storm. They’ll also be rolling out this very awesome device called the Airborne Detector for Energetic Lightning Emissions (ADELE) gamma ray detector. Gamma rays are super high energy light that causes radiation, which can be harmful to humans. However, when gamma rays are used carefully, they can treat cancer in humans by killing bad cells.

As far as bad radiation, though, scientists believe that thunderstorms may actually create something called “dark lightning” that’s invisible to the naked eye but can still harm people. By studying them, the ADELE can offer a better understanding of, for example, the amount of gamma radiation airplane passengers might experience flying through a storm.

Images courtesy of NASA Wallops