Space – NASA project explores thunderstorms | News
PALMDALE — Scientists are studying the effects of certain kinds of intense thunderstorms on the upper atmosphere — and by extension, climate — and they are using NASA’s high-flying ER-2 airplane to do it.
The Dynamics and Chemistry of the Summer Stratosphere, or DCOTSS, project, part of NASA’s Earth Science Division, is underway after a one-year delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The project is to study what are known as overshooting thunderstorms, in which the storms expel gases and particles higher than normal storms, into the stratosphere and the protective ozone layer.
These storms can be identified by their so-called “anvil” clouds, with the overshoot arising from the center, said Kenneth Bowman, the principal investigator for this mission and David Bullock Harris Professor of Geosciences at Texas A&M University.
The air in this center updraft moves very rapidly, from the ground to the stratosphere in 20 to 30 minutes. This creates a fast path for pollutants and water gas that is not typical, he said.
This program is the first specifically designed to look at those components expelled into the stratosphere by these storms, which are more plentiful than once thought, he said.
The study will look at how the physical and chemical processes interact to affect the composition of the stratosphere.
This will also help scientists to understand how climate changes over time as the composition of the atmosphere changes.
The ER-2’s high-altitude capabilities make it the ideal platform for this study.
The ER-2 is a civilian version of the U-2 spy plane, capable of flying at altitudes up to 70,000 feet. This ability allows it to be a platform for studies in portions of the atmosphere not readily accessible by other aircraft.
A lot of data can be gained through satellites and ground-based instruments, but the ER-2 provides access to areas in-between, said Kenneth Jucks, Program Manager for NASA’s Upper Atmosphere Research Program.
The ER-2 is based at NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center’s facility at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale. For this study, plane and crew have deployed to an airport in Salina, Kansas, a location that is central to the areas of the Midwest that typically see these kinds of overshooting thunderstorms, Bowman said.
For this program, the plane flies between 45,000 and nearly 70,000 feet, on missions that are five to eight hours long.
“It depends on how high the storms are,” he said.
The ER-2 does not fly directly over the storms, as the turbulence, hail, updrafts and downdrafts would be too much for the airplane with its long, thin wings. Instead, it flies downwind to capture data on what has been expelled from the tops of the storms, as well as areas of undisturbed air for comparison.
Flights over the same area are made days later to see the changes in the air following the storms.
The plane is carrying 12 fully automated instruments, including some that are extremely sensitive, capable of measuring very small amounts of compounds against the background of oxygen and nitrogen, “the proverbial needle in a haystack,” Harvard scientist David Wilmouth said.
Pods beneath the ER-2’s wings collect air samples for testing at a lab once on the ground.
With a handful of flights completed so far, the measurements are “fantastic,” Wilmouth said.
“It really is a fantastic airplane for doing scientific experiments at high altitude,” he said.
The program expects to conduct two to three flights per week in July and August of this year. The second year of the study is scheduled to have flights in May and June, when thunderstorm activity is greater.