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NASA launching mission to study hurricanes

Starting Sunday, GRIP project to get close-up view of tropical cyclones to learn how they become hurricanes and help people better forecast and prepare for such disasters.

The bulbous nose of one of NASA's two Global Hawks.
The bulbous nose of one of NASA's two Global Hawks. NASA

A new NASA mission aims to come to grips with the way nature whips up hurricanes.

Set to begin Sunday, the agency's six-week Genesis and Rapid Intensification Processes (GRIP) mission will see a series of planes outfitted with sophisticated instruments take to the skies in an attempt to understand the birth of a hurricane, in order to give people a better chance to prepare for them.

This is NASA's first domestic hurricane project since 2001 and its largest ever. Three NASA planes, several satellites, and four planes from research partners will team up to measure tropical storms as they build in intensity or die out and weaken. The goal is to gather data into the process that transforms tropical storms into full-blown hurricanes to better forecast what they'll do when they hit land.

Currently, weather forecasters can predict the path of a storm fairly accurately. But they have trouble predicting its intensity, one of the biggest challenges in the field. Both factors are needed to help people determine how best to prepare before a hurricane reaches shore. If the hurricane is more intense then forecast, lives can be lost. If it's weaker than predicted, the public may start to ignore warnings to evacuate future storms.

Hurricane Isabel
Hurricane Isabel in September 2003, as seen from space. NASA

Aircraft flying in the GRIP mission over the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean will include NASA's Global Hawk, an unmanned aircraft built by Northrop Grumman and typically used for surveillance; the WB-57, which conducts high-altitude research; and the DC-8, which also specializes in scientific research. The various planes will fly a precise and coordinated pattern at different altitudes and locations over the storms to monitor them as they develop.

Joining NASA in this hurricane research and providing additional planes are the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Though satellites can watch these storms from above as they skirt over the ocean, the instruments on the planes can provide an insider's view.

"That's what makes this really unique, the ability to observe one of these storms up close as it changes over its life cycle. Before, we've only been able to get a few hours of data at a time," GRIP Project Manager Marilyn Vasques said in a statement. "We want to see storms that become hurricanes, and we want to see some that don't become hurricanes, so we can compare the data."

The planes will be outfitted with new state-of-the-art hurricane research instruments, NASA said. A microwave radiometer and a radar system will work together to gather data on the cumulonimbus clouds, or "hot towers" that contribute to the intensity of a tropical storm. A lidar (laser radar) designed by NASA will measure wind speed, not just horizontally but vertically as well.

A device known as HIRAD, short for Hurricane Imaging Radiometer, will also play a prominent role aboard the WB-57. By examining the winds deep within a storm, HIRAD will try to understand the intensity and structure of a hurricane. Using an antenna, HIRAD can measure microwaves from sea foam that's generated by strong winds. By analyzing those microwaves, the instrument can determine how powerful and intense those winds are blowing.

The WB-57's payload.
The WB-57's payload. NASA

"Satellites can only get a brief glimpse of what is happening inside a hurricane, and we get very excited about seeing that. Now imagine if you could watch a storm unfold for 20 hours," Ramesh Kakar, GRIP program manager, said in a statement.