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UM research group that designs software for NASA environmental satellites recently earned a major new mission from the space agency.
The University's Numerical Terradynamic Simulation Group will produce software for NASA's Hydrosphere State Mission. Steve Running, NTSG director, says the mission's HYDROS satellite will study the Earth's freeze-thaw transition and soil moisture on a daily basis.
Running's team will write code for the freeze-thaw portion of the mission and will be responsible for calculating and distributing the resulting data once the satellite is in orbit. He says UM should receive about $5 million for this work from 2004 through 2012. The HYDROS satellite tentatively is set to launch in 2009, and the total cost of the mission nationally will be $258 million.
"This really takes us into the next generation of remote-sensing research," Running says. "We thought this Earth-monitoring data product up from scratch, and we are going to produce it here and distribute it globally here from the beginning. This will be the most original work our lab has ever done."
He says studying the Earth's freeze-thaw characteristic on a global scale should lead to improved weather forecasting, better flood prediction and a keener understanding of how spring thaws trigger the growing season.
"The freeze-thaw characteristic is an attribute of the land surface that's changing all the time," Running says. "People think the thaw happens once in the spring, but it's a transition that happens again and again throughout the year. At the mid-latitudes, like in Montana, the transition may happen 20 times a year."
HYDROS will be a radar satellite, Running says, so it will be able to see through clouds and at night -- something NASA's current optical environmental satellites cannot do. In orbit the satellite and its radar dish will resemble a huge, rotating, wire umbrella. At launch the 100-pound radar dish will be about 1.5 feet wide, but will unfold to a width of 18 feet in space.
He says HYDROS will help stitch together a more complete weather model for people living in mid- and high-latitudes, helping unravel puzzles such as snow melt, Arctic Ocean salinity, ocean circulation patterns and northern climate change -- all of which directly impact weather patterns.
"The Arctic Ocean is the smallest ocean and it's almost surrounded by land, so it has the largest continental drainage impact of any ocean," Running says. "It's much more influenced by runoff, and the salinity of the Arctic Ocean goes up and down much more than other oceans. This influences ocean circulation and, thus, our polar weather. The salinity of the Arctic also influences how rapidly sea ice is changing and how quickly the ice pack is disappearing."
HYDROS also will assist with hydrologic forecasting in the high-Arctic, helping people in less-populated areas know when the snow pack will ripen and rivers reach their peak flows.
"You don't need a $258 million satellite to tell you when the rivers will start flowing in Montana -- we already have plenty of river-gauging and (snowpack-gauging) sites," Running says. "But in the high-Arctic and high-Siberia, where there aren't many people, this will be crucial."
says he and John Kimball, a research assistant professor based at UM's
Flathead Lake Biological Station, will be co-investigators on the project.
says this northern region of tundra, permafrost and forest plays a
big role in the Earth's carbon cycle, which affects production of greenhouse
gases and resulting climate change. He says boreal forests sequester
carbon in trees, forest
"Spring is happening earlier there - about nine days earlier than it did in 1988," Kimball says. "Vegetation also is getting greener as the growing season lengthens."
More vegetation means boreal forests are sequestering more carbon, but warming also brings more soil decomposition and thawing tundra, which pumps greater amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. Warmer temperatures also cause more carbon-releasing forest fires. Kimball says studying the freeze-thaw transition with HYDROS should help scientists further understand the carbon equation and the long-term climatic impacts of warming in high-latitude forests.
Kimball already was studying the freeze-thaw characteristic using existing satellite sensors, most notably SeaWinds on NASA's Quick Scatterometer satellite, which looks primarily at ocean wind speeds and direction. He was part of the only research team using the sensor's data for land science, delving into freezing and thawing.
"That sensor has a resolution of 25 to 40 kilometers," he says. "HYDROS will have a resolution of only 1 to 3 kilometers. SeaWinds also uses a very short microwave - about 2.1 centimeters wavelength. This will tell you about tree canopies and soils, but that's about it. HYDROS will use a wavelength almost a meter in length, which will let you penetrate soil and see how deep it's frozen."
HYDROS is a global, polar-orbiting satellite, and it will scan the whole Earth about every three days. However, it will scan its primary focus, the high latitudes, every day.
Running came up with the idea to study the freeze-thaw characteristic from space about eight years ago while reading papers by NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientists. They had noted that radar data from frozen and non-frozen ground looks markedly different.
"I realized this could be a very important land-surface monitor if we could do it every day," he says. "So that's the little epiphany I had. It's probably the most cleanly identified mental discovery of my life."
The other half of HYDROS satellite science -- the soil moisture component -- will be handled by scientists at Princeton University, Goddard Space Flight Center and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "So we are in some pretty fancy company," Running says.
Other mission partners include the U.S. Department of Defense and the Canadian Space Agency.
Running's lab already has produced software for two other NASA satellites, Terra and Aqua, which are part of NASA's Earth Observing System. EOS is designed to further science by making long-term observations of the land surface, biosphere, atmosphere and oceans. UM crafted software for MODIS -- the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer -- which is the primary sensor on both satellites.
Terra is four years into its six-year mission, and Aqua was launched nearly three years ago. Running says his group's work on HYDROS will ramp up as the science on the EOS missions nears conclusion.
"HYDROS is a big new frontier for Earth science at UM," he says. "We will literally be half the science for this new mission. We will be doing our most original work, and we will have a higher level of autonomy than we even had in EOS. This satellite will allow us to delve deeper into the whole dynamic of the Earth system."
- By Cary Shimek