NASA Langley Team to Study Weather During Eclipse Using Uncrewed Vehicles – NASA

NASA Langley Team to Study Weather During Eclipse Using Uncrewed Vehicles – NASA

A six-person team of researchers from NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, will travel to Fort Drum, N.Y., to study changes in the Sun’s radiation as it reaches Earth before, during, and after the total solar eclipse April 8.

Weather sensors similar to what is used on daily weather balloons by the National Weather Service will be added to a specially modified Alta X Uncrewed Aircraft System (UAS) and flown to a maximum altitude of nearly two miles, higher than the team has ever flown the UAS. The UAS will provide vertical modeling of temperature, relative humidity, pressure, and wind to test an alternative data collection to using traditional weather balloons in the troposphere. The troposphere is the lowest layer of Earth’s atmosphere where most types of clouds are found and where weather occurs.

“UAS hold promise for rapid deployment into the lower troposphere with repeated measurements for higher temporal resolution at lower cost,” said Jennifer Fowler, principal investigator and mission commander, “Typically, atmospheric data collection from instruments on board aircraft is done using balloons as the platform that, once released, are not recovered. UAS allow for the opportunity to conduct repeated profiles since the radiosonde is recovered after each flight.”

‘Forcing events’ in weather are events that drive some type of sudden change. Examples of forcing events are volcanic eruptions, wildland fires, and solar eclipses. The predictability of an eclipse, compared to other forcing events, presents a perfect opportunity for scientists to study the impact on the planetary boundary layer, the lowest part of the troposphere, in a natural experiment. Experiments with weather balloons use instruments, called dropsondes, that collect data about the atmosphere as they float to earth. Radiosondes are dropsondes attached to aircraft.

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“The configuration [of instruments] that we’re using, a radiosonde integrated with a 3D sonic anemometer, flown on a multi-rotor aircraft, to my knowledge, has never been done before,” explained Tyler Willhite, airborne sensor operator, “The radiosonde is designed for balloon launches. So, the fact that we’re flying it on a drone is very different. Low altitude sounding data is critical to fill knowledge gaps that currently exist in the atmospheric boundary layer. We also have the ability to have a large variety of data outputs that can be streamed in real-time. This is something that other weather payloads are somewhat limited in.”

NASA’s team will work closely with collaborators from the World Meteorological Organization, National Center for Atmospheric Research, and the University of Albany who will launch weather balloons to gather measurements during the same timeframe.

“During our eclipse mission we will also be participating in the World Meteorological Organization’s world-wide flight campaign. We will gather data in real-time throughout the eclipse and the days beforehand, send those to the WMO to input into their models for more updated and accurate forecast measurements,” said Willhite, “That is the main goal of all this data is to be inputted into models for more updated and accurate forecasts.”

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