Hurricane hunters plot a course with real-time satellite data
The nasa jetliner took off with eight crew members and 38 scientists on a mission to study how hurricanes form. Its target was the tropical depression swirling over the Atlantic Ocean near Cape Verde, Africa, that would soon strengthen into Hurricane Helene. Pilots planned to fly a figure eight through the nascent storm while scientists inside the McDonnell Douglas DC-8 sampled atmospheric conditions with an array of onboard sensors. An hour after takeoff, a scientist tracking the flight radioed with an urgent message: Veer left to avoid a barrage of lightning dead ahead.
That data came from the Real Time Mission Monitor (RTMM), a tool that uses Google Earth to combine up-to-the-minute weather imagery with live aircraft flight data. “We were able to see that the lightning intensity was pretty strong, and we wanted the plane to avoid a bad situation,” explains Michael Goodman, an atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, which manages the project. “Prior to the RTMM, when we would do airborne field experiments, the planes would take off and those of us on the ground couldn’t follow them,” Goodman says.
Besides keeping aircraft out of harm’s way, program managers use the RTMM to ensure that scientists stay near the action. “These are dynamic weather situations,” Goodman says, “so we are much better able to coordinate our assets if we know where a plane is in relation to the weather.” The goal, after all, is to study storms up close, and that often means playing dodgeball with lightning.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.