THE biggest weather research operationthe U.S. National Aeronautics andSpace Administration (NASA) has conductedin Central America launches todayfrom its base at the Juan SantamaríaInternational Airport outside San José.A team of 100 U.S. scientists, techniciansand support personnel from NASAand the U.S. National Oceanic andAtmospheric Administration (NOAA) haveteamed up with Costa Rican scientists fromthe National Meteorological Institute (IMN)and the National High Technology Center(CENAT), as well as university studentsfrom both countries, in a groundbreakingfive-week study of the origins of hurricanes.“We came to Costa Rica because it’smuch easier for us to access the area inwhich hurricanes develop because theydevelop so close to the coast here,” saidJeff Halverson, deputy project scientistwith NASA. “If you try to researchAtlantic hurricanes they develop too faraway from land and the research aircraftjust can’t get out to where they’re born.”THE operation’s name, Ticosonde-Aura/TCSP 2005, comes from its components:the Ticosonde is a joint NASA andIMN information-gathering project usingweather balloons; Aura is a NASA observationsatellite; and TCSP, the TropicalCloud Systems and Processes, is a study ofthe dynamics of storm cloud systems,including tropical cyclones, using NASA fundedaircraft decked out with dozens ofinfrared sensors and cameras.NASA’s equipment arsenal includesthe ER-2 high-altitude research aircraftequipped with six multispectral scanners,two aerial film cameras, a Doppler radarand two dozen other sensors, and theremote-controlled Aerosonde aircraft witha 10-foot wingspan based out of the centralPacific coast city Quepos. In 1998, theAerosonde became the first unmanned aircraftin its class to cross the Atlantic, amore than 24-hour trip during which itused only 1.5 gallons of fuel, according tothe Web site www.aerosonde.com.Two NOAA P-3s will fly missionsalongside NASA’s aircraft to investigatedeveloping tropical weather disturbances,and the Ticosonde RS-92 balloon sondeswill gather humidity measurements.“What’s important is the NOAA aircraftcan’t fly above a certain altitude.They can get to the bottom and the middleof storm. NASA can fly over the top of thestorm and learn about the processes and theclouds,” Haverson told The Tico Times.“When you take NASA and NOAA togetheryou can learn about entire storm from70,000 feet to the surface of the ocean.”THE team arrived a week ago. It willbegin its research today, and the projecteddeadline is in four weeks, TCSP projectcoordinator Michael Gaunce said.The results of this and future researchcould help meteorologists predict hurricanesmuch sooner than they can now.“This is a chance to answer some lifelongquestions that have never beenanswered before,” Haverson said. “Thereare many tropical cloud disturbances, butvery few of them develop into hurricanes.One of the mysteries is why are there sofew hurricanes – about 80-90 around theglobe per year – but there are tens of thousandsof tropical disturbances.”Even if future hurricane warnings aremade one or two days sooner than they aremade now, that lead time is “critical” whenthere are many people to warn, Haversonsaid.“Understanding the birth of hurricanesis something we have to do,” he said.