San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

NASA Launches Mission to Study Lands

The United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is on a mission in Central America to document with three dimensional imagery the isthmus’ lands and topography.

This is NASA’s latest and most comprehensive effort to gauge changes that have occurred to the region’s terrain over the years.

To implement the mission, an 83-foot Gulfstream III jet equipped with a high-tech sensor has been flying over Central America since Jan. 25, measuring three aspects of the area’s seven countries. During the flight’s six-hour missions, the 14-person team has shot imagery of forest habitat in order to estimate the populations of wildlife that live within the woodlands, monitored land structure and deformations caused by volcanic activity and examined archeological sites, such as ancient Mayan cities.

For Central America, much of this data is “baseline information,” team members said. This means it is the first of its kind and will be used as a foundation for future comparisons.

The images will be downloaded to create 3D maps that university and government researchers can use in future studies.

In Costa Rica, NASA’s jet will fly over La Selva Biological Station in the northeastern lowlands, CorcovadoNational Park in the OsaPeninsula in the country’s southwest, and La Amistad International Park on the Costa Rican-Panamian border. The aircraft will also visit the Golfo de Fonseca – which hosts a mangrove forest that extends from Honduras into El Salvador – and indigenous ruins in Guatemala.

Officials announced on Monday that the data collected during the flights will be available to all agencies in Costa Rica. NASA will share the new information with public universities, such as the University of Costa Rica (UCR) and the NationalUniversity.

Shortly after an 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti on Jan. 12, the plane flew over the Caribbean nation to collect images of the massive damages. The jet will return to Haiti on Wednesday to gather more information.

This particular mission will end Feb. 14, but pilots said they likely will return to Costa Rica and Central America in a year to take more photos of the region’s land and further document its changes.


Earlier Missions


While much of the information gathered during this flight will be new for some Central American countries, NASA missions in Costa Rica already have a rich history. The aeronautics institute began hosting projects in Costa Rica in the 1980’s and, since the year 2000, NASA has flown five major missions, including the current assignment, to document the lay of Costa Rica’s land.

In 2003 and 2005, scientists flew two “land service missions” – named CARTA I and CARTA II – to catalog the country’sphysical characteristics. These missions used standard synthetic aperture radar, which depends on the sun for energy and bounces waves off of earth’s surface to gather information.

The synthetic aperture radar used previously, however, was unable to penetrate clouds in order to return information to the aircraft. This proved problematic during the CARTA missions since much of the country’s Southern Zone was covered with a thick, white blanket of clouds during the missions.

Still, scientists were able to merge the data provided by the two CARTA operations and create geographical information for 95 percent of Costa Rica’s national territory.

The radar that NASA is using during this week’s flights emits microwaves with a frequency between 300 megahertz and 300 gigahertz, eliminating cloud interference and providing much more precise information than provided by prior radars. The new radar is also lighter and designed to be used in Unmanned Ariel Vehicles (UAV).

The mechanism’s size and capability, experts believe, will help lower costs and increase mission time periods.

“This is an extremely important fact,” said 30-year NASA veteran Armond Joyce. “Before we had a lot of problems in the OsaPeninsula, for example, because the old radars bounced off the ground and reflected off of the clouds. These new sensors are much more efficient.”

In 2004, NASA flew a mission to document some of Costa Rica’s archeological sites, and in 2007 it spent a week studying and logging information on the tropical clouds that float above the country’s rainforests and oceans. This information has been shared with public universities and government institutes for use in urban planning and conservation practices.


What’s Next?


Several organizations in Costa Rica are equipped with sufficient technology to read data collected from NASA missions, while others are experimenting with ways to advance the nation’s aeronautical capabilities.

Both the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) and the Ministry of the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications (MINAET) have appropriate software to download and analyze data collected by NASA.

For ICE, the information is useful in identifying areas where it can string power lines and build energy plants. At MINAET, press officials said, the data comes in handy when demarking national parks and measuring densities and land use changes affecting protected areas.

UCR aeronautics and physics researchers also are studying various options for geographical explorations from the sky.

In approximately one month, the UCR will receive its first UAV for experiments. The small remote-controlled airplane will have the capacity to carry different types of sensors that could detect gases seeping out of volcanoes and could monitor physical changes to the earth.

Another viable option Costa Rican scientists are considering is called a pod – a container that can be installed on the bottom of an aircraft and can carry one or two radar instruments. Small, lightweight radar such as the one bolted beneath NASA’s Gulfstream III would be ideal for pods and UAV’s.

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