When a hurricane makes its way to shore, the damage it brings can be devastating.

People in the storm's path may lose their homes, or those homes may sustain severe damage that could take weeks or even months to repair. Towns may be destroyed and, in the worst cases, lives may be lost.

In the United States, 100 million people live within 50 miles of the coast and that means they're vulnerable to experiencing what a hurricane can do. And while these Americans may have plenty of warning when a hurricane is on the way, it's much more difficult to predict how intense the storm will be once it arrives.

The team behind the NASA Hurricane and Severe Storm Sentinel, or H3 mission, hopes to change that by using two NASA Global Hawk Unmanned Aircraft Systems to help study storm intensity. One Global Hawk is equipped with NovAtel's Synchronized Position Attitude Navigation (SPAN®) technology to ensure researchers obtain accurate navigation data along with accurate Doppler radar data, says Gerry Heymsfield, the principal investigator for NASA's HIWRAP radar and research meteorologist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. This data helps scientists better predict how intense a hurricane will be once it makes landfall, and what factors cause it to intensify.

HIWRAP, which stands for High-altitude Imaging Wind and Rain Airborne Profiler, maps 3D winds and precipitation within hurricanes and other severe weather events. A NovAtel SPANSE™ receiver is located near the HIWRAP instrument to help researchers improve measurement accuracy and easily obtain the most accurate attitude and positioning data possible. Knowing what causes hurricanes to intensify will eventually help improve hurricane forecasts, potentially reducing the damage they bring and the lives they take. There's a big difference between a Category 1 and a Category 3 hurricane, and knowing which to expect can help people properly prepare for a storm-even if that means evacuating to get out of its path.

“We basically want to know what makes hurricanes intensify rapidly,” Heymsfield says of the HS3 mission. “We don't always know why they intensify rapidly in 6 to 12 hours. The mission will help better predict the processes that cause rapid intensification of storms. Say a storm gets near the coast. Then we're worried about if it will intensify or not. This information will help better predict that.”

The five-year mission began with the planning stages in 2010, and continued with flights from August to September in both 2012 and 2013. The mission wraps up after this year's hurricane season, and will give scientists the information they need to better determine the processes that lead to those intense, devastating hurricanes that cost an average of $10 billion in damage every year-and to better forecast them.