NASA using high-flying aircraft to study thunderstorms

by Marshall Space Flight Center

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NASA team studying the causes of electrical storms and their effects on our home planet launched their first research flight Sunday, Aug. 4, using an uninhabited aerial vehicle to overfly the Florida Everglades.

Based at the Naval Air Station Key West, Florida, researchers with the Altus Cumulus Electrification Study (ACES) used an uninhabited aerial vehicle, or UAV, to make four passes over a storm in the western portion of the Everglades.

Reaching altitudes of up to 50,000 feet, the flight began at 1:14 p.m. EDT and lasted approximately three hours. Information from the flight gave researchers the opportunity to test the range and altitude of a typical science mission using the Altus II twin turbo uninhabited aerial vehicle, built by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc., of San Diego.

“Initial assessment of the data obtained shows great promise,” said ACES project manager Tony Kim of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

“One reason we chose the Altus aircraft is its slow flight speed of 70 to 100 knots (80 to 115 mph), which enables it to fly near thunderstorms for long periods of time. During this first flight, the aircraft was able to stay in proximity of the active thunderstorm for a total of 27 minutes demonstrating the capability of investigating storms over their lifecycle. This bodes well for future missions.”

With dual goals of gathering weather data safely and testing the adaptability of the uninhabited aircraft, the ACES study is a collaboration among the Marshall Center, the University of Alabama in Huntsville, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., Pennsylvania State University in University Park and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc.