Inside the flying lab that’s probing rain clouds

Image: DC-8 view
The view out the window during NASA’s DC-8 flight on Saturday. (GeekWire photo by Alan Boyle)

JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. – I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now – from below, on the receiving end of an all-day rain; and from above, where NASA’s flying laboratory is dissecting those rain clouds.

For more than six hours on a rainy Saturday, I rode along as a DC-8 jet bristling with electronic gear took radar and microwave measurements of the clouds hanging over the Olympic Peninsula. The flight is part of a months-long campaign called the Olympic Mountain Experiment, or OLYMPEX, which is being conducted by NASA and the University of Washington.

OLYMPEX is aimed at fine-tuning the algorithms that scientists use to translate the data coming from on-the-ground weather installations and satellites like the recently launched Global Precipitation Measurement Mission Core Observatory into weather and climate projections.

In the process, they’re addressing a scientific problem we’ve known about since Judy Collins first sang about clouds in the ’60s: We really don’t know clouds at all.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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