NASA ‘Hawks’ Keep Eye on Hurricanes

How does NASA keep an eye on hurricanes that threaten the US? Via high-tech "Hawks" circling high overhead!. Photo Credit: Mark Usciak / AmericaSpace
How does NASA keep an eye on hurricanes that threaten the U.S.? Via high-tech “Hawks” circling high overhead! Photo Credit: Mark Usciak / AmericaSpace

I was given the opportunity to visit one of the hangars at Wallops Flight Facility (WFF) to review NASA’s Global Hawk Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) that are stationed there. My tour took place on Sept. 6, the day of the planned launch of an Orbital Sciences Corporation Minotaur rocket with NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) spacecraft bound for Earth’s Moon.

Two Global Hawks are stationed at Wallops, each of them is a little different than the other. They carry imaging and radar pods which are used to study the formation of hurricanes that form off the coast of Africa. They measure wind speeds and temperatures at different periods during the storms’ formations.

Each of the UAVs conduct missions that last approximately 24-28 hours. They travel at altitudes of some 60,000 feet and are directed on their missions by flight controllers located at WFF.

NASA Global Hawk in hangar drone ready for hurricane surveillance image by AmericaSpace photographer Mark Usciak
A Global Hawk is readied for its next flight at its hangar at Wallops Flight Facility. Photo Credit: Mark Usciak / AmericaSpace

NASA’s sister organization, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), employs satellites to monitor these storms as they form. NASA uses the Global Hawks to aid these spacecraft in their research, as well as manned Hurricane Hunter aircraft.

The second of the two UAVs will carry Doppler radar and a microwave radiometer. These instruments help the aircraft measure wind and rain, as well as surface wind measurements. To monitor atmospheric temperatures and humidity, the aircraft utilize a microwave sounder. An instrument that first took to the skies in 2009 on a Gulfstream V aircraft, the ADELE (Airborne Detector for Energetic Lightning Emissions) is being added to study gamma ray emissions from lightning.

NASA Global Hawk Mark Usiack photo for AmericaSpace
Photo Credit: Mark Usciak / AmericaSpace

The following is how NASA detailed the instruments on board the Global Hawk UAVs:

The radar and microwave instruments will fly aboard Global Hawk Two for the first time in HS3 and will focus on the inner region of the storms. The High-Altitude Imaging Wind and Rain Airborne Profiler conically scanning Doppler radar, the Hurricane Imaging Radiometer, and the High-Altitude Monolithic Microwave Integrated Circuit Sounding Radiometer microwave sounder will be new to the mission this year. These instruments have previously participated in NASA’s GRIP (Genesis and Rapid Intensification Processes) experiment that studied hurricanes during the 2010 season and represent advanced technologies developed by NASA that are precursors to potential future satellite sensors

This year, one HS3 mission Global Hawk will provide the opportunity to test out a non-hurricane related instrument: the ADELE gamma ray detector.

AmericaSpace photo of Global Hawk taken by AmericaSpace's Mark Usciak
Those that built and operate the Global Hawks leave their mark. Photo Credit: Mark Usciak / AmericaSpace

Making a return appearance to NASA Wallops for the 2013 season and flying on Global Hawk One are three instruments to examine the environment of the storms. The scanning High-resolution Interferometer Sounder, the Advanced Vertical Atmospheric Profiling System also known as dropsondes, and the Cloud Physics Lidar will be mounted in the Global Hawk that will be studying the environment around storms.

Wallops Flight Facility is one of several NASA centers involved with the HS3 mission. The Earth Science Projects Office at NASA Ames Research Center manages the project. Other participants include NASA Goddard, NASA Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, Calif., NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala. and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

The HS3 mission is funded by NASA Headquarters and managed by NASA’s Earth System Science Pathfinder Program at NASA’s Langley Research Center, Hampton, Va., and is one of five large field campaigns operating under the Earth Venture program. The HS3 mission also involves collaborations with various partners including the National Centers for Environmental Prediction, Naval Postgraduate School, Naval Research Laboratory, NOAA’s Hurricane Research Division and Earth System Research Laboratory, Northrop Grumman Space Technology, National Center for Atmospheric Research, State University of New York at Albany, University of Maryland – Baltimore County, University of Wisconsin, and University of Utah.

Image of NASA's Global Flyer drone for Hurricane flights taken by AmericaSpace photographer Mark Usciak
Photo Credit: Mark Usciak / AmericaSpace

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