Start of a New EPOCH: HOPE and Hurricanes


Project HOPE (Hands-On Project Experience) is training NASA’s newest leaders to launch the next wave of science missions and careers.

Amber Emory with a Global Hawk unmanned aircraft. Image Credit: NASA

A cabin is nestled in the Adirondacks, its large single-pane windows looking out over the lake. A young Amber Emory sits in her grandfather’s chair, watching the storms roll in over the increasingly choppy waters. Years later she’s leading the next advance in hurricane research.

Project HOPE (Hands-On Project Experience) is training early-career professionals within NASA to be the next generation of mission leaders. Emory is the principal investigator for HOPE’s latest endeavor, the East Pacific Origins and Characteristics of Hurricanes (EPOCH) Project.

HOPE’s primary goal, as said in an interview with Moses Adoko, the training coordinator for EPOCH, is to develop technical, communication, management, and leadership skills in the younger members of NASA’s demographic. To this end, HOPE provides an opportunity for hands-on learning and mentoring from senior staff, so that their experience and technical knowledge can be preserved in NASA’s community. More than just training, Adoko added, HOPE fostered the development of relationships between centers and agencies, with EPOCH members and contributions from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Goddard Spaceflight Center, Armstrong Flight Research Center, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The development of EPOCH was an exercise in team interaction and group problem-solving. The normal timespan of a NASA project is on the order of years, but the EPOCH team of 20 had only 18 months to develop and assemble the necessary equipment and instruments. åʉÛÏHOPE opportunities are from proposal to publishing,‰Û said Adoko.

Emory’s team is working on EPOCH, preparing a Global Hawk unmanned aircraft by equipping it with three separate data collection systems: the Advanced Vertical Atmospheric Profiling System (AVAPS), the High Altitude Monolithic Microwave Integrated Circuit (MMIC) Sounding Radiometer (HAMSR) and the ER-2 X-band Radar (EXRAD).

Global Hawk unmanned aircraft in flight. Image Credit: NASA Photo/Jim Ross

The Global Hawk can carry a payload of up to 90 dropsondes per flight for use with AVAPS. Dropsondes are instruments that are ejected from an aircraft and parachute through the atmosphere, taking in situ measurements of humidity, temperature, pressure, wind speed, and wind direction along the path of descent. This data is sent back to the AVAPS system as the devices fall, producing measurements for different altitudes in a single column of air.

The HAMSR, as a radiometer, passively detects electromagnetic radiation on 23 different frequencies to gauge the temperature and water vapor content of scanned areas to obtain atmospheric conditions. EXRAD sends out a 3 cm wavelength signal to detect the presence of precipitation from light rain to soft hail.

With all of these instruments operating at the same time, EPOCH will monitor meteorological conditions and phenomena through the entire depth of clouds.

Originally scheduled for a single science flight, through its partnership with NOAA, EPOCH is now funded for six 24-hour science flights in August.

The measurements taken by the HAMSR, AVAPS, and EXRAD will be used to validate newer models for forecasting the strength of hurricanes. These instruments will observe the small-scale processes in hurricane development ‰ÛÒ processes that are hypothesized to contribute to the intensity in developing hurricanes. For all of the advances made in technology, ‰ÛÏthe hurricane science community has not made significant improvements in predicting 24 hour changes in hurricane intensity in the last 25 years,‰Û Emory said.

Hurricane Matthew Making Landfall on Haiti. Image Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

The data collected during EPOCH’s science flights may provide a much-needed step toward more accurate forecasting of hurricane intensity. Take for instance Hurricane Matthew, a Category 4 hurricane that devastated the east coast of the United States in the fall of 2016, causing an estimated $6 billion in damages. Early predictions showed the storm would be much less severe, about a Category 2, leading inhabitants of the affected areas to inadequately prepare for the force with which it struck. In the opinions of Emory and her team, if data from the storm’s small-scale processes had been monitored, then the predictions for Hurricane Matthew may have shown just how dangerous the storm would become.

The best case scenario would be for the Global Hawk to fly over a rapidly intensifying hurricane. With its capability for three back-to-back flights the project could record conditions at each point in the storm’s development. With experts predicting an above average number of hurricanes this season, EPOCH team members may get just the storm they’re looking for.

And NASA may get another leader ‰ÛÒ trained and ready to manage developing crucial missions. As principal investigator and overall lead for the project, Emory learned valuable skills for managing an endeavor this size. ‰ÛÏSTEM doesn’t teach you the soft skills of leadership,‰Û she said. ‰ÛÏ[HOPE] exposed me to how the agency works.‰Û

Joseph Dowling is a summer intern at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and a fire protection engineering student at the University of Maryland.