The National Weather Service's network of sensors may soon welcome aboard a high-flying counterpart, in the form of a NASA-developed fixed-wing glider that zips through the sky collecting data. The Weather Hazard Alert and Awareness Technology Radiation Radiosonde (WHAATRR) Glider could function as an airborne science platform according to the team that developed it, and may even play a role in atmospheric research on Mars.

The glider is based on NASA's Prandtle-m, a fixed-wing drone the agency hopes can one day carry out low-altitude reconnaissance missions on Mars. The team is still finalizing the design details of the WHAATRR glider, but says that it will have a wingspan of about three feet (91 cm) and be crafted from carbon fiber.

Packed with sensors, instruments and flight-control software, the idea is that the glider could provide the National Weather Service with more accurate and timely information on events like hurricanes, and do so a lot more cheaply. NASA says it could potentially save the National Weather Service up to US$15 million a year, and help minimize needless airline delays and save aircraft and human lives in the process.

Further to improving weather forecast models on Earth, the glider may one day play a similar role in space and even on Mars, where it could collect atmospheric information and guide exploration decisions. But there's a way to go before any of that happens. Once the design is finalized and the glider is built, researchers will put it to the test by launching it at 20,000 ft (6,000 m) from a weather balloon. Following that, the onboard sensors and instruments will be put through their paces when the glider is dropped from 100,000 ft (30,000 m) and remotely guided to a predetermined location.

"It could fill a tremendous need in the weather community," said project manager Scott Wiley.

Source: NASA