How NASA tracks and studies hurricanes

Although NASA is typically associated with space missions, the organization actually plays a big role in forecasting weather. Satellites in space keep a close eye on our atmosphere and provide valuable information to forecasters.

Over the last week, we have seen some incredible images of Hurricane Matthew from outer space. Images coming from NASA have played an important role in forecasting the storm.

"NASA's role is really about developing new technology, taking new measurements from space of the earth from a variety of perspectives using a constellation of satellites," said Dr. Scott Braun, a NASA scientist.

The satellites are specifically designed to look inside a storm and can tell us information about a hurricane's structure, intensity, and rainfall.

The best one for observing hurricanes is the GPM, the Global Precipitation Measurement. Launched in 2014, the GPM allows NASA to examine storms in 3D, which can give us a wealth of information, according to Dalia Kirschbaum, a NASA scientist.

"The GPM satellite is orbiting Earth, about the Arctic to the Antarctic circles," she said. "So we can get multiple passes of the storm as it's developing, as it's intensifying, and as it affects land."

This was very helpful information for predicting recent landslides in the Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

"For landslides we can use a lot of different tools in our suite to better understand how the topography might interact with precipitation, if the soil is already wet, as well as get optical views," Kirschbaum said. "Did we see flooding in this particular area?"

Along with satellites, NASA has aircraft.

"We also have aircraft like the NASA Global Hawk that is actually currently flying over Matthew as part of a NOAA campaign," BRAUN said.

The Global Hawk is an unmanned aircraft that can fly for long distances and remain aloft for extended periods of time. It provides valuable measurements and observations from remote locations otherwise unreachable by piloted aircraft, like the hurricane hunters.

In November, NASA is launching GOES-R satellite, which is expected to revolutionize forecasting in the United States with improved resolution, five times faster scanning, and a lighting mapper. It will be another great tool to help forecast the impacts of extreme events like Hurricane Matthew.