Unintended consequences: Physicist finds rain data breakthrough


John Lane looks over data recorded from his laser system

A physicist and researcher who set out to develop a formula to protect Apollo sites on the moon from rocket exhaust may have happened upon a way to improve weather forecasting on Earth.

Working in his backyard during rain showers and storms, John Lane, a physicist at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, found that the laser and reflector he was developing to track lunar dust also could determine accurately the size of raindrops, something weather radar and other meteorological systems estimate, but don’t measure.

The special quantity measured by the laser system is called the “second moment of the size distribution,” which results in the average cross-section area of raindrops passing through the laser beam.

It’s not often that you’re studying lunar dust and it ends up producing benefits in weather forecasting,” said Phil Metzger, a physicist who leads the Granular Mechanics and Regolith Operations Lab, part of the Surface Systems Office at Kennedy.

Lane said the additional piece of information would be useful in filling out the complex computer calculations used to determine the current conditions and forecast the weather…

The breakthrough came because Metzger and Lane were looking for a way to calibrate a laser sensor to pick up the fine particles of blowing lunar dust and soil. It turns out that rain is a good stand-in for flying lunar soil…

“The Apollo sites have value scientifically and from an engineering perspective because they are a record of how these materials on the moon have interacted with the solar system over 40 years,” Metzger said. “They are witness plates to the environment…”

As research continues into the laser sensor, Lane expects the work to continue on the weather forecasting side of the equation, too. Lane already presented some of his findings at a meteorological conference and is working on a research paper to detail the work. “This is one of those topics that span a lot of areas of science,” Lane said.

I probably should add the old economics phrase to my list of categories – “unintended consequences”. It functions as often and as well in general science.

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