NASA uses a modified Lockheed U-2 spy plane to fly through storms at an altitude of 18-21 km. Photos/NASA
FLORIDA – NASA uses a modified Lockheed U-2 spy plane to fly through a storm at an altitude of 18-21 km. NASA equipped the aircraft with Terrestrial gamma-ray flashes or gamma-ray detectors to predict storm activity.
After being modified by the two U-2 spy planes acquired by NASA in 1981 and 1989, they were named Earth Resources 2 or ER-2. The ER-2 aircraft can fly very high in the sky, above 99% of Earth’s atmosphere.
NASA’s two ER-2 aircraft have flown more than 4,500 missions and one of them set an extreme altitude record in 1998 reaching an altitude of 68,700 feet or 21 kilometers above Earth. As an illustration, commercial airplanes generally fly at an altitude of about 35,000 feet or 11,000 meters (11 km).
NASA’s ER-2 aircraft have been used to conduct studies on new satellite sensors, global warming and ozone levels, atmospheric phenomena, and even snowfall. NASA pilots flew this science craft directly into thunderstorms and recorded incredible data about gamma-ray flashes.
The ER-2 aircraft was flown at an altitude of 18 km to get as close as possible to the thunderclouds and through the storm. “By doing this, the team of scientists was able to compile the most detailed analysis of gamma rays and thunderclouds in the air ever recorded,” according to a NASA statement quoted by SINDOnews from the Space page, Tuesday (22/8/2023).
It is known that thunderstorms can create strong up and down winds that accelerate air and water to great speeds. When ice crystals collide in these eddy air currents, electrons are released from them, creating an electric field that produces lightning.
Under certain conditions, these free electrons can also cause flashes of gamma rays, the shortest and most energetic waves in the electromagnetic spectrum. Thunderstorms can emit two different types of gamma-ray radiation, first short gamma-ray flashes and longer gamma-ray bursts that can last from minutes to hours.
The plane flew from Tampa, Florida and made observations for 60 hours. A unique gamma-ray detector developed at the University of Bergen enables researchers to collect data in real-time, allowing them to point pilots to thunderclouds that are actively emitting gamma-ray radiation.
Another instrument on board, the Fly’s Eye GLM Simulator (FEGS), captures data in the near-infrared and ultraviolet wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum emitted by lightning but not currently visible to satellites.
“This program can help scientists see when storms are getting stronger and provide additional information to protect the public from the threat of thunderstorms,” said Timothy Lang, NASA scientist.