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NASA unmanned aircraft investigates Tropical Storm Erika and helps improve hurricane forecasts

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Posted at 9:19 PM, Aug 26, 2015
and last updated 2015-08-26 21:19:07-04

A lot of us have heard of NOAA’s Hurricane Hunters, the fleet of scientists and meteorologists who fly through tropical systems to investigate their intensity and path.

But now a different aircraft, without any humans onboard, is helping experts back on the ground improve hurricane forecasts.

NASA’s Global Hawk unmanned aircraft departed the Wallops Flight Facility along the Virginia Eastern Shore on Wednesday, August 26 at 7 a.m. for a 24 hour flight to study Tropical Storm Erika.

Get the Latest on Erika

In partnership with NOAA, NASA has equipped the remotely piloted aircraft with instruments to measure temperature, moisture, wind speed and direction as part of the NOAA-led mission Sensing Hazards with Operational Unmanned Technology or SHOUT.  The real-time data will go into the National Weather Service forecast models at the National Hurricane Center, which help forecast tropical systems.

The Global Hawk is based at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, CA.  What makes the aircraft so unique is that it flies higher and longer than any manned aircraft to investigate weather observations.  In fact, according to NASA, “it allows data collection from 60,000 feet, an altitude nearly twice as high as manned aircraft, to the ocean surface.”

From now until the end of September, several Global Hawk missions will be flown over the Atlantic Ocean.  NASA also says that this season, they will test whether data from the Global Hawk can help replace data collected by satellites in the unlikely event that a satellite goes down.

Sources: NASA Wallops Flight Facility, NOAA