January 3, 2012

State of Alabama
Press Release: Alabama Department of Commerce

The World's Eyes Are On Marshall Space Flight Center

Published: Sunday, January 01, 2012

Governments, corporations and even Inuit tribesman, such as this fisherman steering around a melting iceberg, are interested in weather research under way at Marshall Space Flight Center.

HUNTSVILLE, Alabama -- Imagine you're an emergency responder looking for a fishing boat in distress in the cold waters of the Arctic Ocean. You know the boat's coordinates, and you know the coordinates of rescue craft in the area.

But what if you could call up an image on your laptop that showed those locations overlaid with the locations of search airplanes overhead, sea conditions and any approaching bad weather?

Now imagine there's no emergency, but you'd just like to see on your iPad the condition of arctic sea lanes and whether conditions in the next six hours favor the formation of ice on the superstructure of your ship.

If you think there might be a demand for that information, you'd be right. And you'd understand why there's excitement from government agencies in the U.S. and Canada, native tribes such as the Inuit, and commercial companies for new tools being developed by NASA in Huntsville.

The original tool is the Real Time Mission Monitor (RTMM) developed by Dr. Michael Goodman and his colleagues at the National Space Science and Technology Center in Huntsville. It's an example of the science done at Marshall Space Flight Center that has nothing to do with rocket propulsion.

Goodman, the assistant manager of Marshall's Earth Science Office, is one of NASA's scientists who track hurricanes and other storms in what are called "airborne field campaigns."

Those campaigns have a lot of moving parts, including satellite data, airplane location data and ground data.

Goodman wanted a way to keep track of it all without looking from computer screen to computer screen for each layer.

"If we can track it, we can change our plan to match developing conditions," Goodman said in a December interview. "It's re-vectoring on the fly."

RTMM is a reality now and used in major NASA storm monitoring campaigns. But Marshall scientists and technicians wondered: Could RTMM do more?

The opportunity to find out came when scientists began to observe "arctic melting."

"Put that in quotes," said researcher Paul Meyer. "There is still debate about whether global warming is occurring, but there seems to be glacial melt. It looks like the arctic passages are opening up."

If the passages open and stay open, shipping companies could save weeks versus southern routes through the Panama Canal. But travel in this water is treacherous, regardless.

Meyer and his team have been working to develop an information system that can be made available to government and individuals. They also want it to be helpful to the Inuit and other indigenous peoples.

"One of problems is you're going to be in low-bandwidth areas, more than likely, if you're an indigenous person," Meyer said. "So we need to make this work for those people."

Meyer is working on a two-year program to show what RTMM can do.

"It pretty much fills the bill as a prototype demonstration to prove to the various partners and potential partners that this may be a tool that can work," Meyer said.

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