Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Unexpected Findings Highlight NASA's Space Shuttle Mission

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Unexpected Findings Highlight NASA's Space Shuttle Mission

Article excerpt

SIX happy astronauts are ready to return to Earth tomorrow with a spaceship full of scientific "pay dirt."

Reports from the Johnson Space Center in Houston say that the data coming in from the space shuttle Endeavour's German-Italian-American mapping radar and its air-pollution sensor are "delighting scientists on the ground." Summing up this 10-day mission as it nears its end, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) scientist Vickie Connors told a press briefing that "our science has been beyond our wildest dreams."

That enthusiastic assessment is based on "quick look" data transmitted from Endeavour. Much of the detailed mapping data - which will cover about 50 million-square kilometers (18 million-square miles) - is stored on 180 high-density tape cartridges on board the orbiter. NASA estimates it will take five months to produce a complete set of images from these data.

Although the mission's main objective was to thoroughly test the Earth scanning instruments, the data gathered has practical scientific value. The radar images cover a wide variety of terrain and sea conditions. Often these give geologists, hydrologists, and oceanographers a detailed overview of areas that would otherwise be difficult to reach. The $366 million instrument has imaged the Gulf Stream to trace how its warm waters spread into the Atlantic Ocean. Radar images can also show such subtle features as the snow-melt line as spring advances into Canada.

Also the predesignated targets were expanded to cover areas of flooding in the American Midwest and eastern Germany. Project scientist Diane Evans from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., explained that "radar really is the ideal sensor" for this purpose because it can see through the cloud cover. The overview this gives hydrologists will help them assess the future course of the flooding. …

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