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NASA’s Hurricane Drone On a 26-Hour Flight

With an active Atlantic Hurricane Season underway, NASA is getting a chance to take advantage of its new fleet of Global Hawk research drones. These drones, which Climate Central's Michael Lemonick wrote about on September 4, are designed to loiter for many hours above a storm, gathering data on storm structure, and providing forecasters with clues as to storm movement and intensification.

Image showing the track of the Global Hawk research aircraft superimposed on an atmospheric water vapor image.
Credit: NASA.

A satellite-derived cross section of the storm that the aircraft is investigating. Click on the image to see a larger version.
Credit: NASA/TRMM.

NASA seems determined to set some flight-time records while they're at it (there's gotta be a record for longest time spent gathering data on a hurricane, right?), having sent a Global Hawk to gather data on what is likely to become Tropical Storm Nadine during the next few days. The drone was launched on Tuesday, but won't touch back down at its base on Wallops Island, Va., until Wednesday, after flying for about 26 hours (you can track the flight live online). That's far longer than the endurance of human-piloted hurricane research flights.

To put that in further perspective, the longest regularly scheduled passenger flight is between Singapore and Newark, N.J., which clocks in at a comparatively paltry 18 hours and 55 minutes.

The drones help complement the existing fleet of Air Force Hurricane Hunter planes, which fly at much lower altitudes, right into the heart of a storm's strongest winds, as well as aging research aircraft operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which also fly inside the storm. The drones fly at higher altitudes, above the most turbulent parts of such massive storms. Depending on how much useful information they provide, they might one day replace some of those conventional planes as a mainstay of hurricane recon work. 

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