NASA Is Sending Planes Straight Into Snowstorms to Report on the Weather

It takes two planes to discover more about snowstorms.
Loukia Papadopoulos
An aircraft.NASA

NASA is known for getting creative with its airplanes even producing models with no windows. But perhaps, its most impressive planes are the ones that can fly into snowstorms.

These types of planes, according to NASA, are used to report the weather and they are part of the space agency's Investigation of Microphysics and Precipitation for Atlantic Coast-Threatening Storms (IMPACTS) mission based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Why not satellites?

You might be wondering: why not use satellites instead of endangering pilots? NASA and its partners do indeed have several satellites in orbit capable of measuring precipitation from space. “But satellites can’t tell us a lot about the particles – the actual snowflakes ­– and where they form within the clouds,” said Gerry Heymsfield, one of the deputy principal investigators for IMPACTS at Goddard.

Two distinct but complementary planes

Therefore, IMPACT is instead using two planes outfitted with scientific instruments. The first is the NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center’s ER-2. This aircraft is fitted with instruments similar to those on satellites but with higher spatial resolution, additional measurement capabilities, and more frequent sampling. It is meant to get a top-down view of storms from above the clouds.

The second aircraft is the P-3 Orion and features probes hanging off its wings. These probes measure the size, shape, and distribution of precipitation particles allowing scientists to evaluate the size and shape of snow particles throughout the clouds as well as the temperature, water vapor, and other conditions in which they form.

Most Popular

“A project like IMPACTS can really complement those spacecraft measurements with aircraft measurements that are higher resolution, higher accuracy, sample an event more frequently, and provide additional parameters such as Doppler measurements,” said John Yorks, one of the deputy principal investigators for IMPACTS. 

NASA invests a lot in its environmental planes but its results are undeniable. Snowstorms are complicated weather phenomena. They require in-depth research and many scientific tools to truly understand them and learn how to forecast their arrival and plan for the devastation and havoc they often cause.

message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron