By Andrew Bridges
LOS ANGELES – NASA has begun releasing the most accurate global map ever created – 3-D images of mountains, valleys and plains that were put together from a trillion measurements of the Earth’s surface by a space shuttle crew last year.
The digital topographical maps were crunched from the 8 terabytes of data gathered during the 11-day Shuttle Radar Topography Mission, which ended in February 2000. The data – equal to 160 million pages of text – includes precise measurements of 80 percent of the Earth’s land mass.
“The map is going to be 100 times better than any other global map that we have,” said Tom Farr, the mission’s deputy project scientist at the NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.
Astronauts collected the data with two large radar antennas, one tucked in the shuttle cargo bay and one on the end of a 197-foot mast. The two simultaneously imaged the surface of the Earth. When combined and processed, the data gathered reveal a stereo view of the topography.
NASA expects maps created from the data – available over the Internet – will help pilots dodge remote mountain peaks, scientists study drainage patterns in valleys where they’ve never set foot, and the Defense Department – the mission’s main customer – better guide missiles.
More than 160 military and intelligence systems will use the digital terrain elevation data, said Thomas Hennig, the project’s manager at the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, which underwrote much of the $142 million mission.
Other uses include settling border disputes, like those that arose while hammering out the 1995 Dayton peace accord that ended the war in Bosnia.
For now, the data will come at a trickle, with JPL releasing one mapped area each week to scientists. The first, which covers an 8,000-square-mile swath of Colorado, was released Tuesday.
The first continental map of North America is scheduled for release next spring. The last of six large releases, showing the world’s islands, should come by the end of 2002.
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