Priming the Pump UM research and development help fuel Montana's economy
Related: UM Research and the Economy
When Gardening Really Is Rocket Science NASA satellite uses UM-designed software to monitor Earth and its oceans
Helping Hospitals Multistate partnership works to improve quality of health care in rural communities
Leading Information New undergraduate degree program merges clinical health care and information technology
Excellence on the Air Montana Public Radio and PBS bring award-winning programs to Big Sky Country
Core of Discovery UM focuses on Lewis and Clark
Animal Advocate Veterinarian monitors quality of animal research at UM
Breathing Easier Professor's program puts UM at the forefront of research on asbestos-related diseases
Keep Tobacco Sacred Tobacco-abuse prevention project brings culturally relevant message to state's American Indian reservation schools
Hot Topic Mansfield Pacific Retreat draws international VIPs to discuss climate change
Cool Idea College of Technology paves way for hydrogen energy revolution
News to Use Exercise expert encourages public health awareness
A Closer Look Briefs
Back Talk UM researcher earns highest U.S. honor for young scientists
REALLY IS ROCKET SCIENCE
When it comes to gardening, Steve Running prefers to think big. “We’re trying to do for the whole world what a gardener does with his garden,” says Running, a UM forestry professor. “We want to chart seasonal patterns and how they change.”
Running, who has received more than $10 million in grant money from NASA in the past three years to pursue earth science via outer space, believes the computer software loaded on the recently launched Aqua satellite will give him and his colleagues at UM the tools they need to better monitor the gardens of the world.
Coupled with the Terra satellite, launched more than two years ago with UM-designed software that represented Running’s initial stab at outer-space earth science, Aqua should give scientists in Missoula and around the world a complete look at global vegetation and drought patterns.
story: UM Satellite Study
“The names aren’t gimmicks,” Running says. “They will each give a different snapshot of the Earth. NASA built both sensors at the same time. The only difference will be the afternoon orbit, but that will allow us to use the data in different ways.”
The Aqua satellite is equipped with the same software on its platform that Terra currently carries in orbit. But because of the different times of day the satellites will orbit the Earth, the software will provide a different type of data to researchers at NASA and in Running’s UM lab.
The UM software on Terra, which hits the Earth’s equator at 10:30 a.m. MST each day, is land-oriented and provides scientists with data on vegetation growth rates all over the world.
Aqua, which hits the equator at 1:30 p.m. MST, is water-oriented and has UM-designed software that will provide data on drought conditions and fire danger worldwide. In order to accomplish the afternoon orbit time, Aqua was launched at 3 a.m. MST, Running says, which provides a vastly different view for observers than the late morning Terra launch.
The Terra launch in December 1999, from the same Vandenberg Air Force Base in coastal California that Aqua lifted off from earlier this year, marked the culmination of more than a decade of research for Running, a longtime UM researcher who has become an internationally renowned expert on satellite science. Terra’s liftoff was delayed for years as scientists tinkered with every aspect of the $1.3 billion satellite, which was armed with five different sensors designed to monitor an array of conditions on Earth.
Aqua’s liftoff also was delayed more than two years from its original launch date.
“Its original launch date was for December ’99,” Running says. “It slid back the same way Terra did.”
But in charting new courses in satellite science, delays aren’t necessarily bad.
Running says the lag time between the launch of Terra and the launch of Aqua was probably a good move scientifically. He says when pioneering research in outer space, it’s always good to have a backup plan in case something goes wrong.
“That means we’ve had a backup (instrument) on Earth while we’ve learned from Terra,” Running says. “I’m very happy it stayed on the ground so we could correct some small engineering problems. And if a big meteor hit Terra, we would still have another (instrument) on the ground.”
While scientists have been pleased with the data being gleaned from Terra, Running says it is still a work in progress because of the newness of the data being received.
functioning as planned,” he says, “but the space environment
is endlessly exciting. ... Meteors the size of a grain of sand can cause
all kinds of problems. And gamma rays from the sun could just zap it out.
Things just can go wrong in space. But we are getting what we wanted.”
Eventually, Running says UM should play host to a data center where regional land managers can come to make use of the Terra information and learn how to interpret it.
“It’s pretty hard for somebody to just sit down and understand the data,” he says. “We’ve got the funding for personnel for such a center, but we don’t have a building to put it in. ... That would enable us to do a better job of serving the global research and earth science communities.”
With Aqua, Running says his team will be able to do a better job of monitoring drought and fire conditions worldwide. He says the data gleaned from Aqua should provide scientists with the tools to develop reliable drought monitor indexes and fire danger indexes.
“We want to know what the surface temperature is all over the world,” Running says. “This will enable us to do so.”
Running and his team of experts aren’t finished. With their software tucked away on two orbiting satellites, the UM crew now will turn its attention toward a new NASA project dubbed “Hydros.”
The satellite project, still in the planning stages, would be a collaborative effort between Running’s team at UM and scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“There could be a whole cluster of grants surrounding this new mission,” Running says. “NASA wants us to look at how we can measure the frozen areas of the Earth each day. ... If we can land it, it would be another whole launch process.”
While satellite launches still excite Running, he says once he personally witnessed Terra take off, other launches seem somewhat more routine.
“No doubt we’re not as nervous, and the expectations are not as extreme now that we have one that has worked,” he says. “The scientific expectations are just as high, but the emotional anticipation is not as intense.” V
Gary Jahrig, a UM journalism school graduate, is a freelance writer in Missoula and a frequent contributor to Vision and Research View.