NASA will use an Uninhabited Aerial Vehicle, or “UAV,”
for a research mission to better understand how lightning
forms and dissipates during thunderstorms. The remotely
piloted, high-flying aircraft will fly above and around the
dangerous disturbances, gauging the various elements that
unleash the fury of storms.

Part of NASA’s UAV-based science demonstration program, these
flights will show the ability of this type of aircraft to
carry Earth-viewing scientific payloads into environments
where an onboard pilot would be exposed to life-threatening
hazards. This capability will benefit both U.S. scientific
and commercial objectives well into the new millennium.

The mission will utilize the ALTUS UAV, built by General
Atomics, San Diego, CA, taking advantage of its remotely
piloted capability, along with its high altitude (up to
55,000 feet) and slow speed. Researchers from the University
of Alabama at Huntsville, with colleagues from NASA’s Goddard
Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD, will chase down
thunderstorms in Florida to better understand the
relationship between storms and lightning. When a developing
storm is spotted at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida,
researchers will send the ALTUS above and around the storm,
while the remote pilots remain safely on the ground.

“This mission combines the exciting use of UAV technology
with sound science to unravel the mystery behind lightning
and its relationship to violent storms — information that
will help those who predict these events as well as the
public and infrastructure affected,” said Dr. Ghassem Asrar,
Associate Administrator for Earth Sciences at NASA
Headquarters, Washington, DC.

Using precision instruments aboard the aircraft, researchers
will take measurements to determine lightning potential of
the storms in the hopes of better understanding how different
physical characteristics in the atmosphere can contribute to
development of lightning. These data will increase
understanding of lightning and storms, while providing
federal, state and local governments new disaster-management
information for use in the areas of severe storms, floods and
wild fires.

This is one of two projects selected from 45 proposals
received in response to a solicitation issued in 2000. The
solicitation requires that the missions be managed in
“Principal Investigator” mode: Each mission’s lead
investigator is responsible for choosing the UAV best suited
for the experiment, and then managing all aspects of the
mission for NASA. NASA has identified approximately $8
million to fund the two UAV missions over a period of four

The mission is part of NASA’s Earth Science Enterprise, a
long-term research effort aimed at understanding how human-
induced and natural changes affect our global environment,
while providing practical societal benefits to America today.
The Earth Science Enterprise provides the sound science
needed by policy and economic decision-makers to assure
responsible stewardship of the global environment.