By the numbers

NCAR's Gulfstream V aircraft (High-Performance Instrumented Airborne Platform for Environmental Research):

Max weight: 90,500 pounds

Length:: 96.4 feet

Wing span: 93.45 feet

Height: 25.86 feet

Range: 7,000 miles

Max altitude: 51,000 feet

Source: NCAR

BROOMFIELD -- Sparing your vehicle a hail-shattered windshield, or, more importantly, saving your family from the anguish and trauma of a tornado-flattened home, could come down to a matter of minutes.

Starting Wednesday and lasting for a month, the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder will carry out a 40,000-foot-high experiment to see whether it can collect enough data over the Colorado Rockies to provide additional warning time, and a more precise path, to people who may be in the way of potentially deadly storms.

Researchers with NCAR, along with colleagues from other scientific and academic organizations, will head to Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport in Broomfield and cram themselves into an instrument-packed Gulfstream V for a six-hour mission to sample jet-stream winds, upper-level temperatures and other features across Colorado and nearby states.

There may be up to a dozen flights over the next 30 days, with the plane taking off as early as 3 a.m. on some mornings.

Morris Weisman, senior scientist with NCAR, said the meteorological community currently relies on data collected at widely scattered "sounding stations" in Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Wyoming and New Mexico to craft weather forecasts.

That data generally doesn't include high-level readings from the mountainous terrain west of Denver, he said, which can have subtle yet profound effects on the jet stream and the formation of thunderstorms -- or hail storms and tornadoes -- to the east.

"We only get a coarse picture of the air mass above the mountains," Weisman said to a group of reporters gathered inside NCAR's hangar at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport on Monday. "What we've found is the forecast models are very sensitive to the jet stream."

Dubbed the Mesoscale Predictability Experiment, the project will try to improve on today's same-day forecasts, which often note the likelihood of severe storms but not specifically where and when they will hit. MPEX will help determine whether more detailed observations and simulations could lead to more precise forecasts of storm location and behavior as much as a day in advance.

"What we're hoping to do is avoid the big forecasting errors," Morris said. "This will help us to really spotlight where the storms will be."

The project also will involve researchers from Colorado State University; the University at Albany, State University of New York; Purdue University; the University of Wisconson--Milwaukee; and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administrations' National Severe Storms Laboratory.

A National Science Foundation grant of nearly $1 million is underwriting the effort.

On board the Gulfstream V on Monday, Project Manager Pavel Romashkin said the aircraft will use a microwave-based temperature sensor to measure horizontal temperature contrasts high in the sky. He pointed to a launcher filled with minisondes -- or cylindrical weather sensors that measure temperature and humidity -- that will be released from the aircraft during missions.

He said about 30 to 40 of the devices, which will descend on parachutes, will be released per flight.

"This will give us a much denser grid and much higher spatial resolution," said Romashkin, who will work out of NCAR's operations center in Boulder during the project.

The minisondes will relay information about the upper-level features of the atmosphere -- such as pockets of strong wind or dry air -- which when pushed into the Great Plains can be critical in the formation or suppression of severe storms. Weather satellites and other meteorological measurement devices in use today across the Rocky Mountain states may not detect them.

"The structure of the atmosphere two to six miles above sea level is incredibly important," Weisman said. "This appears to be where the biggest forecast errors develop, so we need to collect more data at these heights."

MPEX also will include ground-based afternoon launches of weather balloons that will carry instruments capable of profiling conditions around thunderstorms as they develop and move east.

Weisman said that more precise and advanced forecasting might have helped in a situation like the one Windsor faced five years ago, when a mile-wide tornado swept through town, killing one person and causing $193 million in damage.

"We're hoping to find out where you need to collect observations in order to get the most improvement in short-term forecasts," he said. "Better prediction with a few hours of lead time could make a big difference in helping people prepare."

Contact Camera Staff Writer John Aguilar at 303-473-1389 or Follow on Twitter @abuvthefold