NASA’s high-tech wildfire weapons

  • Story Highlights
  • Unmanned aerial vehicle assesses the damage from wildfires in California
  • The vehicle is a cousin of the Predator B, a wartime surveillance plane
  • Ikhana captures thermal-infrared imagery used to pinpoint hot spots
  • NASA also has 2 Earth-observing satellites to monitor the wildfires

This week, Ikhana flew over blazes like the Witch fire in San Diego County to determine the direction of the flames and send thermal-infrared imagery to scientists for layering over Google Earth maps. The combination of data and maps was then used to dispatch firefighters and equipment to sites in need and to determine which areas should be evacuated.

But Ikhana won’t become the standard for high-tech firefighting just yet, according to Everett Hinkley, the liaison and special-projects group leader for the U.S. Forest Service.

The UAV is extremely expensive compared with manned airplanes, and each mission requires lengthy preparation time. These are essentially test flights for the drone, the goal being to hone operators’ skills for a time when the technology is more affordable and widespread.

Ikhana’s main task is to scan the wildfires at close range and send thermal-infrared imagery to a central server accessible by agencies such as FEMA, the Department of Homeland Security, emergency-service centers in Southern California, and even the Pentagon.

Experts are then called on to interpret the data with people on the scene to incorporate this valuable information into their maps. Eventually, NASA plans to include UAVs in a whole network of devices that will monitor natural-disaster sites at different scales, from satellite imagery down to ground-level data.

Right now, in addition to Ikhana, that network includes two high-tech satellites that are also being used to monitor the wildfires. The Terra and Earth Observing-1 (EO1) satellites have sensors that use telescopes and cameras to scan the planet for natural disasters and send data back for scientists to review.

The Terra’s sensor has a one-kilometer range — large enough to locate hotspots from space but too huge to focus in on specific sites. The EO1 has a 30-meter range for closer views of natural disasters, and the UAV delivers even more detailed information. NASA is working to combine these tools to create a web of sensors that rescue workers could use to find the information they needed quickly and efficiently

“It’s kind of like going to the weather channel for fire,” says Dan Mandl, the EO-1 mission manager at NASA. “Every sensor in the world becomes a data feed, and we’re using RSS technology [so] anyone can locate and subscribe to it.”

Instead of having people intercept the data, the process has become automated, which speeds up the information-gathering process, Mandl says. An image from the EO1 used to take two weeks to analyze, but the first images from the fire in Southern California were analyzed in less than 10 hours.

“The fire workers need to have as much data as possible about the location of the fires,” Mandl says, “because the big problem is that fires don’t stay still.”


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Shuttle, station hook up in orbit

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Astronauts aboard space shuttle Discovery and the international space station joined forces Thursday, linking their ships and kicking off the biggest construction job ever attempted by a single team in orbit.

History was made with the 215-mile-high linkup: It was the first time two female commanders met in space.

Retired Air Force Col. Pamela Melroy steered Discovery in for the docking and was the first to enter the space station. She was embraced by Peggy Whitson, the station’s skipper.

Right before the two spacecraft hooked up, Melroy guided Discovery through a 360-degree backflip so the station crew could photograph the entire shuttle. The pictures were hurriedly beamed down so NASA could determine whether Discovery’s belly sustained any launch damage from ice or insulating foam from the fuel tank.

The small patch of ice that shook loose from fuel tank plumbing at the moment of liftoff Tuesday ended up grazing the fuel-feedline hatch on the bottom of the shuttle. John Shannon, chairman of the mission management team, likened it to an ice cube falling 10 inches and said the hatch was unharmed

In fact, Shannon said most if not all of the shuttle’s thermal shielding looks to be in good shape, including three wing panels that a safety engineering group urged to have replaced before the flight. Further analysis is needed before NASA can say definitively that Discovery suffered no significant launch damage. But unless something new pops up, engineers see no need for additional shuttle inspections.

Laughter and shouts of “How you doing?” filled the space station as the seven shuttle astronauts floated in one after the other and greeted the three station occupants.

“Hey watch out now, don’t be messing up my walls,” joked station resident Clayton Anderson.

A half-hour later, Anderson relinquished his space station position to Daniel Tani, who will spend the next two months there. “I have to send out my ‘I have moved’ card,” Tani radioed to Mission Control.

“He’s behind already one month in rent,” said Anderson, who moved into the space station in June. Discovery will bring him home.

The first of a record-tying five spacewalks is set for Friday.

Astronauts Scott Parazynski and Douglas Wheelock will be outside as a bus-sized compartment named Harmony is unloaded from Discovery’s payload bay and attached to the space station by the station’s robot arm.

Harmony, which was made in Italy, will serve as the docking port for the European and Japanese laboratories that will be delivered on the next three shuttle flights.

The two spacewalkers will remove a broken antenna from the station and pack it aboard Discovery for the ride back, and prepare a space station girder for relocation later in the flight.

Moving that girder will be like a ballet, Shannon said. “It’s very tough,” he said.

Given all the construction work on this mission, “We are extremely lucky that we have a vehicle that is in such incredible shape,” Shannon said.

Melroy, 46, earned praise from Mission Control for her precise parking at the space station. She is only the second woman to command a shuttle.

Whitson, 47, a biochemist, is the first woman to command a space station.


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A veteran space flier, Navy Cmdr. Stephen N. Frick, will command the STS-122 shuttle mission to deliver the European Space Agency’s Columbus Laboratory to the International Space Station. Navy Cmdr. Alan G. Poindexter will serve as pilot. Mission specialists include Air Force Col. Rex J. Walheim, Stanley G. Love, Leland D. Melvin and European Space Agency astronaut Hans Schlegel. Poindexter, Love and Melvin will be making their first spaceflight.

Expedition 16 Flight Engineer Daniel Tani, who is set to fly to the space station on the STS-120 mission, will return home with the STS-122 crew. STS-122 will deliver European Space Agency astronaut LĂ©opold Eyharts to the complex.

STS-122 is the 24th shuttle mission to the International Space Station.

Related links:
Mission information(Source)
Launch Schedule
STS-122 Shuttle Mission Imagery
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