But launching a rocket into a tornado is no easy task. Last week’s undertaking required near-perfect positioning in the “inflow notch” ahead of the tornado. That’s the narrow, rain-free region of air entraining into the circulation from the northeast; it’s also a tricky spot to get to, as it’s often in the tornado’s direct path.
Timmer reports that the rocket’s parachute deployed at 800 feet, the sensor “immediately carried by the tornado at speeds over 180 mph.” The rocket — designed by colleague Curtis Brooks — worked “flawlessly.”
The probe beamed live data back to Timmer every second as they continued to chase the tornado. The numbers revealed “incredible rotational and updraft wind velocities.” Unsurprisingly, Timmer also notes that the rocket’s journey was characterized by “substantial turbulence.” After all, flying into a twister is not your typical Delta flight.
Within minutes, the probe had ascended to 35,000 feet as the tornado was tearing up Linwood, Kan. During its climb, the rocket’s path exhibited a surprising kink at 11,000 feet. The instrument package shot upward at 122 mph, attesting to the extremely strong rising motion needed to spin up an intense tornado.
Once the probe exited the updraft region and was no longer supported, it plummeted downward at up to 123 mph as it fell north of the tornado’s damage swath. It’s a process similar to how hail forms, the heavy chunks of ice suspended until they exit the storm’s updraft region and pelt areas downstream of the upper-level winds. The sensors did encounter pretty chilly air aloft, temperatures dropping as low as 18.3 degrees.
Inside the probe was a microchip that also logged incredibly high-resolution data every tenth of a second. It was too much data to telemeter to the ground in real time, so Timmer’s only chance of capturing that data was to recover the probe. Unfortunately, offering something up to a tornado’s voracious winds in the hope of getting it back is a notorious long shot.
But the intrepid former Discovery Channel star appealed to his followers on social media, hoisting a photo of the probe with the caption “NORTHERN MISSOURI: Please be on the lookout!”
In what Timmer describes as a “miracle find,” the rocket probe was recovered — by a man named Matthew DuBois. He found the instrument near the United Methodist Church northwest of Kansas City. DuBois had “seen this yellow thing on the side of the road,” recognizing it immediately.
Meanwhile, DuBois is hoping for a miracle of his own. The rocket’s recoverer is slated to undergo emergency kidney surgery in the days ahead and miss six weeks of work. Timmer created a GoFundMe page, which had racked up nearly $2,200 as of Thursday to help DuBois’s family with expenses.
It’s the storybook ending that Timmer has been working toward for more than a decade. His insatiable curiosity to unlock the secrets inside a tornado mean he’s tried it all — “armored vehicles, balloons, drones … air cannons” and more. But each time, Timmer’s attempts struggled to overcome the “sheath of sinking air that encapsulates the tornado vortex.” The fix? “More propulsion.”
Timmer and his team are celebrating, but they’re not slowing down. In fact, the enterprising scientists are doubling down on their efforts to capture even more data.
“Now that we have the workflow down, we plan to launch many more sensors into as many tornadoes as we can intercept safely,” Timmer wrote. “We’ll be analyzing this data nonstop over the coming months, and plan to publish a series of journal articles on the results. We thank our Facebook supporters for making this research possible!”
Some academic tornado experts, however, seemed skeptical about the research value of this rocket intercept.
Josh Wurman, a tornado researcher not part of Timmer’s group, called the rocket experiment “cute” but said he’s unconvinced it will advance scientists’ understanding of tornadoes.
The rocket “took just one slice through a tornado,” Wurman said. “We’re way beyond that in science.”
Wurman, who is president of the Center for Severe Weather Research in Boulder, Colo., explained that academic researchers are conducting controlled experiments to map and investigate the three-dimensional structure and characteristics of twisters and their surrounding environments, and how they change with time. His group uses mobile Doppler radars to collect tornado data.
“The bar for what’s useful scientifically in tornado research has grown a lot,” Wurman said. Timmer’s rocket “is kind of cool, but what really it teaches us about tornadoes that we didn’t know already is pretty unclear.”
He concluded that Timmer will need to share his data with other scientists for its value to be better understood.
“At the end of the day, we need the raw data,” Wurman said. “That’s how science is evaluated.”
Three other researchers we reached out to declined to comment on the rocket effort, at least until more details about the data and methodology become available.
Jason Samenow contributed to this article.