Storm Chasers Score Bullseye On Tornado With Instrument-Packed Rocket

Model rockets are a heck of a lot of fun, and not a few careers in science and engineering were jump-started by the thrilling woosh and rotten-egg stench of an Estes rocket launch. Adding simple instrumentation to the rocket doubles the fun by allowing telemetry to be sent back, or perhaps aiding in recovery of a lost rocket. Sending an instrument-laden rocket into a tornado is quite a few notches past either of those scenarios, and makes them look downright boring by comparison.

A first and hopefully obvious point: just don’t do this. [ChasinSpin] and [ReedTimmer] are experienced storm chasers, and have a small fleet of purpose-built armored vehicles at their disposal. One such vehicle, the Dominator, served as a mobile launch pad for their rocket as they along with [Sean Schofer] and [Aaron Jayjack] chased what developed into an EF4 monster tornado near Lawrence, Kansas on May 28. They managed to score a direct hit on the developing tornado, only 100 feet (30 meters) away at the time, and which took the rocket to 35,000 ft (10.6 km) and dragged it almost 30 miles (42 km) downrange. They lost touch with it but miraculously recovered it from a church parking lot.

They don’t offer a lot of detail on the rocket itself, but honestly it looks pretty much off-the-shelf, albeit launched from an aimable launchpad. [ChasinSpin] does offer a few details on the instrument package, though – a custom PCB with GPS, IMU, a temperature/humidity/barometric pressure sensor, and a LoRa link to send a data packet back every second. The card also supported an SD card for high-resolution measurements at 10 times per second. Check out the launch in the video below, and be sure to mouse around to get a look at the chaotic environment they were working in.

Even if this isn’t as cool as sending a sounding rocket into an aurora, it’s still really cool. We’re looking forward to seeing what kind of data this experiment collected, and what it reveals about the inner workings of these powerful storms.

[Tornado image: @WXChasing, from 5/29 storm in Canton, TX]

16 thoughts on “Storm Chasers Score Bullseye On Tornado With Instrument-Packed Rocket

      1. It was rated EF4 from the damage. Additionally the wind speed we measured inside after sensor deployment was higher end EF4. It’s conceivable wind may have just reached EF5 level at some locations closer to the ground however the damage wasn’t through high density areas or a variety of home types.

  1. Not far from me at Camp Blanding, the University of Florida had a lightning research center where they would launch rockets into thunderheads trailing a thin copper wire from a spool at the launch tower, most often resulting in a direct lightning strike. The wire wasn’t even really needed as the hot exhaust gasses from the rocket created an ionized trail for the lightning to follow. You ‘observed’ from a giant Faraday cage not 20 foot from the launchpad, also on the tower, wearing dark sunglasses and huge earmuffs. I was lucky enough to get to hang out there for a few sessions. The thunder boom would rattle your very bones! This is a another “don’t-try-this-at-home”!

  2. Hmm, maybe embedding those instruments in a big pink foam ball would also work? Like, leave ball in path of tornado and wait until it’s picked up and sent upwards? That could slash costs and maybe you could send several(hundred?) into tornado, to monitor it in multiple points at once? Good thing there’s no tornadoes where I live, but I would probably try this if I lived in USA.

    1. That’s basically the story to the movie Twister. The storm chasers are trying to get a tornado to pick up a device that will scatter hundreds of small sensors throughout the funnel and are racing against a rival band of chasers that had stole their design.

      1. Unfortunately, things that are easy in the movies are impossible in the real world. The movie’s little whirligigs would not have survived a stiff breeze let alone a EF4 tornado.

    2. Think a minute. A vortex that can shred a well-built building into confetti is not going to have a problem with a big pink foam ball. This is not the first try by this team at this concept. There was nothing left of the housing from the last attempt and electronics do not do well in a wet environment going 300kph.

    3. We have some ideas for pickup, the main concern with pickup from the ground is it getting slammed back into the ground. We do have plans for multiple sensors being deployed into the tornado, this first deployment was a proof of concept.

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