Planet waits for a message from above

January 14, 2000

Nasa's latest satellite monitors the environment, Olga Wojtas finds out how a dental school fits into the scheme

Dundee University is primed for messages from American space agency Nasa's latest satellite through a receiving system on the roof of its dental school.

The new Terra satellite, part of Nasa's ambitious Earth Observation System, carries a range of environmental monitoring equipment. It will provide global information on the state of the atmosphere, land and oceans and explore how they interact with one another and with solar radiation, the weather in space.

Dundee's particular interest is in the Modis (Moderate Imaging Spectrometer) instrument, a camera that takes images of the earth's surface covering the thermal emission from the planet. It will be used to measure ocean surface temperature to monitor ocean circulation; land surface temperature, including the detection of forest fires; vegetation coverage, to help monitor the effects of deforestation; and cloud and atmosphere characteristics to improve weather forecasting.

Nasa says that at present, researchers do not understand the cause and effect relationships well enough to predict what, if any, impact current rapid changes will have on the climate in the future.

Steve Parkes, director of the satellite receiving station, said: "The damage that is being done by man to our planet every year is immense. The Terra satellite aims to help scientists understand and monitor the world's climate.

"After receiving data from the satellite, Dundee will pass it on rapidly to research groups within the United Kingdom." Dr Parkes said Dundee relied on direct broadcasting, where the spacecraft continuously transmitted data to any receiving station beneath its path. Terra was launched just before Christmas and is expected to start broadcasting in late February or early March.Itis"outgassing", enabling various parts of the structure to emit gasses that would otherwise contaminate the instruments once they are in use.

The Dundee satellite receiving station is part of the school of physical sciences and engineering, funded by the Natural Environmental Research Council. It works in close collaboration with the remote sensing data analysis service at Plymouth Marine Laboratory.

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