Shuttle mapping mission on target for January takeoff

The National Imaging and Mapping Agency announced Friday that all systems are go for a space shuttle mission that the agency is counting on to capture detailed images of the Earth's surface.

The Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) is scheduled for launch on Jan. 31. Space Shuttle Endeavor, equipped with two radar-imaging devices, will collect terrain elevation data of more than 80 percent of the Earth's surface. NIMA will use the information to create more detailed and accurate maps.

NIMA's maps are used by the military, the Department of Defense and other agencies for everything from tactical planning to simulations to archeological digs.

The digital images collected during the 11-day shuttle mission will take more than 18 months to be analyzed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It will take another nine to 12 months to create maps out of the analyzed data, according to a NIMA spokesman.

"The information collected would fill more than 15,000 compact disks and is equal to three-fourths of all the information in the Library of Congress," said Eric Berryman, a NIMA spokesman.

In the past, aerial images and data collected from field explorations were used to create topography maps. Cloud cover and steep terrain prevented many areas — such as the mountains near the equator — from being accurately recorded, according to Joe Steel, a topographer for NIMA. The new radar technology will allow images to be recorded regardless of the weather.

"We had to guess at what some of the terrain was like," he said. "Our customers require very accurate maps so they can more accurately plan troop movements or where to place their trucks and tanks."

Information on the SRTM project is available at www.jpl.nasa.gov/srtm.

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