NASA mission sends aircraft over Leslie to study hurricane formation

NASA Global Hawk No. 872 flies over Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. in 2009. NASA Photo / Carla ThomasNASA began a new mission by sending the first of two unmanned Global Hawk aircraft from Dryden Flight Research Center in California to the Atlantic Ocean to fly over Tropical Storm Leslie on Friday afternoon. The Hurricane and Severe Storm Sentinel (HS3) mission took measurements of the environment around the storm before landing at Wallops Flight Facility, on Wallops Island, Virginia.

The Global Hawk Uninhabited Aerial System (UAS) is a fighter jet-sized unmanned aircraft that has been used to fly surveillance missions by the United States military since the late '90s. They saw extensive use in Iraq and Afghanistan. Two Global Hawks were transferred to NASA in 2007, outfitted with various weather monitoring instruments, and began flying science missions in early 2010, studying the ozone layer and the transport of air pollution from across the Pacific Ocean.

The purpose of HS3's five-year mission is to study hurricane formation and intensification in the Atlantic Ocean. During that time, the mission will explore the roles of the environment around hurricanes and smaller-scale processes inside the storms. It will also examine the effect of deep convection in the inner-core of storms and address the Saharan Air Layer (SAL) and a controversial question of whether it aids or impedes storm development.

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Previous to the HS3 mission, NASA successfully flew both of its Global Hawk aircraft into Hurricane Earl in September 2010.

Tropical Storm Leslie continues its slow crawl towards the north. It is currently just east of Bermuda and picking up speed, and could make landfall in Newfoundland as a Category 1 Hurricane — with sustained winds of 120 km/h — sometime Tuesday afternoon or evening.

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