Research Consortium Applies Remote Sensing Data to Earth-Bound Problems

Posted: February 11, 2003 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Robin Herron

Every afternoon around 3:30 p.m., an antenna perched on top of Fenwick Library begins transmitting signals to a computer in the Science and Tech I Building on the Fairfax Campus. Graduate students in Earth systems science and remote sensing stand by to begin analyzing the data, which has been collected from passing National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Polar Orbiter satellites hundreds of miles overhead.

The digital code translates into photographic images of the eastern part of the United States taken as the satellite’s orbit brings it over the region. These images are used by teams of researchers in the School of Computational Sciences (SCS) and the Center for Earth Observing and Space Research (CEOSR), and shared with others for a variety of projects funded under the VAccess/MAGIC program, short for Virginia Access/Middle Atlantic Geospatial Information Consortium.

Photo of Menas Kafatos

Menas Kafatos

Menas Kafatos, dean of SCS and director of CEOSR, is the principal investigator for the consortium and is responsible for managing the project and coordinating educational outreach efforts as well as George Mason’s own research. Eight other participating institutions–Hampton University, James Madison University, Old Dominion University, the University of Maryland at College Park, University of Virginia, Virginia Space Grant Consortium, Virginia Tech, and the College of William and Mary–each bring their own expertise and experience to VAccess/MAGIC. Begun as VAccess in 2001 to focus on applying remote sensing technologies to environmental issues in Virginia, the multimillion-dollar research consortium expanded its scope with the addition of the University of Maryland last year.

When making presentations about VAccess/MAGIC, Kafatos shows a PowerPoint demonstration that elicits appreciative murmurs from his audience. It begins with a crisp and clear photo shot from directly over the U.S. Capitol that zooms out, taking the viewer from a few thousand feet above the building to miles above it within seconds. The effect is like the view one might have from the bottom of a rocket as it blasts off into space. Kafatos enjoys the reaction it produces, as it helps to make the point that remote sensing provides a broad yet in-depth perspective of the Earth.

Simply speaking, remote sensing is a process of acquiring information about an object or area at a distance, and VAccess/MAGIC relies on a variety of data collected from satellites and aircraft using different imaging technologies. The consortium, which has received $2.5 million in congressional

appropriations to date through the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Stennis Space Center, with another $1.5 million expected next year, will be applying remote sensing data to a variety of issues. These include land use and land change, forestry management, Chesapeake Bay pollution control, providing a wetlands inventory, mosquito control, and fire, storm, and oil spill hazard mitigation. A variety of remote global earth observing technologies are used along with other available data and innovative analysis technologies.

“The technology helps to provide a consistent view of things,” says Kafatos. “Where you need a broader view, such as in forestry and wetlands inventory, these technologies are ideal.” Various state agencies can use the data produced, especially the departments of forestry, transportation, and environmental quality, he explains. “We are developing prototypes for them–we see what data they have and what we can do for them.”

For example, remote sensing data that indicates the presence of water can be used to identify potential breeding sites of mosquitoes, a source of the West Nile virus. Then, using information indicating the location of schools, day care centers, nursing homes, and other sites where vulnerable members of the population are clustered, researchers can generate diagrams showing high risk areas for the disease.

Hyperspectral sensing, a technology that can detect the kind of material being observed remotely based on electromagnetic spectral frequencies, provides amazingly specific data. As Kafatos says, with this technology “you can tell apples from oranges.” Hyperspectral sensing can differentiate between forests, open land, soil, water, and oil over a wide area. It can generate a color-coded map that indicates damage from an oil spill, showing the course of the oil dispersion and where it has contaminated water and seeped into the soil.

Not least of the VAcess/MAGIC project is the educational component. In addition to providing master’s and doctoral dissertation projects for graduate students, the consortium also offers high-level training opportunities for professionals working in geographic information systems (GIS) fields and for GIS scientists and others. Already, the consortium has hosted two workshops, the most recent one last October, focusing on a slew of technologies, satellites, and sensors known by such acronyms as TRMM, TOMS, AIRS, AMSU, MODIS, WebGIS, DODS, GrADS, DIMES, and others, that are used in remote sensing data retrieval, processing, analysis, and applications. The workshops bring in experts from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Goddard Space Flight Center, NOAA, other governmental organizations, private industry, and consortium members.

Noting that VAccess/MAGIC is “a complex project,” Kafatos says he and the project are very grateful for the funds from NASA and the support from local politicians, Virginia Sen. John Warner, Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski, and Virginia Rep. Tom Davis, and the “good spirit and very good cooperation” from the other partners. “It requires a lot of coordination,” he admits. “but the educational component is very crucial and important to us.”

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