To get a better grip on how tropical storms form and develop into hurricanes, NASA plans to fly aircraft and unmanned air vehicles into them this summer.
The hurricane research fleet for the Genesis and Rapid Intensification Process mission (Grip) is made up of one Global Hawk UAV, a McDonnell Douglas DC-8 and a Martin WB-57F Canberra. The six-week programme, which begins on 15 August, is the space agency's agency's first major US-based hurricane field campaign since 2001.
Adding the extreme endurance of unmanned aircraft to the mix will be "game-changing" for hurricane study, said Ramesh Kakar, Grip programme scientist at NASA headquarters in Washington.
"For the first time, scientists will be able to study these storms and the conditions that produce them for up to 20h straight," Kakar says. "Grip will provide a sustained, continuous look at hurricane behaviour at critical times during their formation and evolution."
The manned DC-8 will fly from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International airport in Florida.
The Global Hawk will be piloted and based from NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, California while flying for up to 20h in the vicinity of hurricanes in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico.
The Block 0 RQ-4 Global Hawk, has been modified to eject hundreds of dropsondes into the storm as well as collect data with on-board sensors.
The manned WB-57F is a Vietnam-era twinjet light bomber and reconnaissance aircraft that has been refitted for high-altitude atmospheric sampling in nuclear weapon testing and weather research. It will be based at the NASA Johnson Space Center's Ellington Field in Houston, Texas.
The Grip flights will come after NASA completes a series of six ongoing flights in the Pacific Ocean - dubbed GloPac - in which two RQ-4s are collecting climate and atmospheric data, including information about ozone depletion in the stratosphere, as well as validating sensors aboard NASA's Aura Earth-monitoring satellite.