LIKE a team of development superheroes, five pilots from the U.S. NationalAeronautics and Space Administration(NASA) have spent the past six weeks inCosta Rica helping the country solve propertydisputes, protect the environment, preventtax evasion, respond to flooding andbuild better cities.They are scheduled to finish their worktoday, and are labeling the project – MisiónCarta 2005 – a success.While hardly experts in any of thesefields, the five pilots helped a group ofCosta Rican scientists in a massive projectto take an aerial snapshot of the country, orrather, 8,200 snapshots.NOW that the images have been taken,the real hero work will begin, as nationalscientists and policy-makers must pourthrough the mountain of information toglean a better understanding of the country.They will use the data gathered tounderstand where and why flooding anddeforestation are happening, in efforts toimprove natural disaster damage preventionand forest conservation.They will inventory the country’s waterresources and evaluate the location and statusof electrical and telecommunicationsinfrastructure to improve urban planning.Most importantly, officials will use theaerial images of 75-80% of the country tooverhaul the country’s National PropertyRegistry and National Cadastre – whichdocument the ownership, size, location,value and map of properties. Officials hopethis will not only help settle land disputes,but also improve property tax collection.WHILE the $92 million cadastreimprovement project is the objective drivingMisión Carta, scientists and policymakersfrom myriad public institutionshave seized the opportunity to conductmore than 40 different projects using thedata.“Who knows what kind of fantasticuses will result from this information,”said Federick Kaplan, an advisor with theU.S. Embassy.Similar projects using remote sensorshave had unexpected results, such as inYemen, where a lost city was found, hesaid.Researchers from the University ofCosta Rica (UCR) are using the images tosearch for evidence of pre-Columbian societiesand have found some routes used byearly societies.While other countries have conductedsimilar studies, Misión Carta is unique inits magnitude, according to Gary Shelton,former NASA employee and project managerfor the U.S. side of the project.In addition to aerially documenting theentire country, close-range images alsowere taken in geologically importantplaces – such as the active Arenal Volcano– using special spectral sensors that create3-D images to show things such as thermalbehavior.MISIÓN Carta flights began Feb. 28,however the idea began four years ago.The project is the brainchild of UCR physicistJorge Andrés Díaz, who is projectmanager.“To the young researchers of the country,this is an example of what can be done,with a little piece of sand, you can create aproject of this magnitude. What JorgeAndrés has done is amazing… and all thepublic will benefit,” said Science andTechnology Minister Fernando Gutiérrezduring a conference to celebrate the projectMarch 17.Although NASA planes and pilots wereused, the Costa Rica government and theCosta Rica-United States Foundation forCooperation (CR-USA) funded the project.Approximately $1.9 million of the $4 millionMisión Carta project is funded by thecadastre improvement project.“For Costa Rica this is… a greatachievement… a demonstration on the partof the Ministry of Science and Technologythat we support scientists in the country…This is not a cost, it is an investment. Wewill see results in the future,” MinisterGutiérrez said.Although the image-taking phase of theproject was completed today, preliminaryresults and analysis will not be availableuntil November, Shelton said.THE image-taking phase consisted ofpilots flying in 66 north-south lines acrossthe country, traveling at speeds of 150-250nautical miles/hour over ground speed,which is much slower than a normal passengerplane, according to NASA officials.The two-seat plane measures 67 feet inlength with a wingspan of 120 feet.A pre-designed grid identified whereexactly photos were to be taken. If meteorologicalconditions prevented photos frombeing taken, pilots switched from one ofthe 66 lines to another to maximize theirflight time, until all 8,200 images werecaptured.To complete the project, pilots andscientists worked exhaustively 12 to 14hours a day, seven days a week for sixweeks beginning at 4 a.m. every day, withthree days off for rest and a couple otherdays grounded because of weather conditions.The photos were taken at 25,000 feet –much lower than the 60,000 feet at whichthe NASA planes are capable of flying.“The lower elevation gives us a muchbetter resolution,” explained pilot BrianBarnett. “Not only can we distinguish theuse of land as agriculture, but we can determinewhat kind of crops are being grown.In Hawaii, using this equipment, theyfound an invasive species was infectingtrees, of which they were previouslyunaware.”A similar project to capture aerialimages was conducted in Costa Rica in2003, on a lesser scope – photos weretaken at 40,000 feet instead of 25,000, overa course of three weeks, instead of six.While the higher-resolution photosfrom Misión Carta 2005 will be muchmore beneficial, particularly in updatingthe national cadastre, the 2003 photos canbe used in a comparative analysis, Díazexplained.“For example, we can see the urbangrowth since 2003 has been amazing. Themetropolitan area has changed greatly,” hesaid.Díaz said he hopes images can be takenperiodically to measure environmental,population and other changes.“We are already thinking of 2007,” hesaid.