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AccuWeather Extreme Meteorologist Reed Timmer and his team first to successfully launch a data-streaming sensor into tornado

By Adriana Navarro, AccuWeather staff writer
June 03, 2019, 1:57:20 PM EDT

"Hey Mark, we got it in! I think we got it in!" AccuWeather Extreme Meteorologist Reed Timmer shouted above the roaring of the wind, the yellow rocket swallowed by the wedge tornado that loomed hundreds of feet away from the team.

On May 28, 2019, a rain-wrapped EF4 tornado tracked south of Lawrence, Kansas. The group of storm chasers, acting as an independent team, recognized their chance. They were in the right position– to the north of the massive tornado looming over them and about a hundred yards away, according to Timmer.

They began adjusting the launching equipment atop the SRV Dominator 3, the vehicle Timmer uses for storm chasing. After the press of a button followed by a spark and a hiss, the rocket was off.

With the help of an independent team comprised of Mark Simpson, Curtis Brooks, Sean Schofer, Aaron Jayjack and himself, Timmer sent the rocket and the sensor attached to record data inside a tornado. Pressure distribution data, temperature, relative humidity, wind speed– everything that went on inside a tornado, they were after it all.

"It's never been done before. It was kind of depicted by Twister back in the day, but technology has never really been there to stream live data back to the ground from inside a tornado until now," Timmer said.

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The goal of sending the sensor into the tornado was to collect data that hasn't been accessible before. Usually, instruments in the path of the tornado to collect data are often destroyed. Timmer himself has poured 10 years of money and effort into this project.

"Everything's gone into it," Timmer said. "So much work and effort, and so many failures over the years. I think I pretty much put my whole entire bank account into it, and it was just so much work to get it in there. I knew the data would just be incredible, so I think all of that combining in just one watch is a little too much to handle."

But with the break through of getting sensors inside a tornado, Timmer believes our understanding of the power of tornadoes will be quantified.

"Right now we lack so many data points, especially near the ground, inside tornadoes and even inside tornadoes measured overall with direct instrumentation and hardware. I think this will open the door," Timmer said.


Rocket launched into a tornado. (Image via Reed Timmer)

The tiny rocket, dubbed 'Dorothy' much like the device in the movie Twister, was designed to pierce through the sheet of sinking air that usually encapsulates tornadoes when they form through the process of occlusion. Brooks was the mastermind behind the craft while Simpson, who goes by @ChasinSpin on Twitter, designed the sensors that would power this project.

The team decided to name the sensor that would ride into the tornado with Dorothy "Bill Paxton," in the honor of one of the lead actors from Twister.

Originally, there was the idea that they wouldn't have to recover the probe that would carry a sensor. Instead, they would be able to live stream the data to the ground receiver.

However, there was a bump in their plans when the live streaming data was only received at once per second (a hertz), while the probe in the tornado recorded ten observations per second (10 hertz).

Dorothy and Bill soared into the tornado, and after reaching about 1,200 feet, the parachute deployed. The updraft carried the probe up to 5,000 feet, then 10,000 feet, eventually reaching up to 34,000 feet in elevation before the team lost signal with it after about eight to nine minutes of recording data.

One thing was clear to the team: the bulk of the data had been recorded in the probe, which had just been carried off by a tornado with the second-highest rating in the Enhanced Fujita scale.

And so the search began. Timmer posted on social media, and the quest was picked up by news networks and followers alike spreading the word.

By what Timmer described as a miracle, Matthew DuBois and Jerry Belk found the yellow probe at the side of the road and reached out to him.

This wasn't the first time social media had come through for the group.

"It is because of my Facebook supporters we made it happen," Timmer said, who used crowd source funding for this project.

After receiving funding from his supporters, the technology powered by Simpson, a team to drive with him to face the storms and 10 years of hard work, Timmer had finally done it. He doesn't plan on stopping either. According to Timmer, the next step is sending more probes into tornadoes to get a "more detailed picture of the complex dynamics" of tornadoes.

"What makes me happy is launching rockets inside a tornado, so it was the best investment of my life," Timmer said.

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