23 February 2000
German astronaut Gerhard Thiele landed back on Earth yesterday (Tuesday, 22 February 2000) with his five international colleagues after a ground-breaking Space Shuttle mission that will change the way we look at the Earth.
The Space Shuttle Endeavour glided to an early evening landing at the Kennedy Space Center, touching down on the runway after a mission of over 11 days. Landing time was 06:22 p.m. EST (00:22 a.m. CET on Wednesday 23 February 2000).
Elated scientists from all over the world gave the international SRTM team a standing ovation and heralded the mission a huge success.
ESA astronaut Gerhard Thiele, completing his first space flight, described the mission as a "fantastic experience".
"We have mapped regions that are home to 95% of the world's population and this data will be used to produce unrivalled three-dimensional images of the world," he said.
Orbiting at 233 km above the Earth, with two radar antennas mounted in the Shuttle payload bay and two extended on a 60-metre mast, the imaging system has measured the undulations of landscapes that have been sculpted through the millennia.
NASA extended mapping operations for nine hours, allowing Endeavour's astronauts to continue collecting data until a day before returning to Earth and meaning they would achieve almost 100 percent of the planned coverage.
The mission's target mapping area included about 123 million square kilometres and more than 65 percent of this - nearly 80 million square kilometres - was mapped with two or more passes.
The Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM), consisting of a specially modified radar system, was designed to demonstrate the technology for obtaining high-resolution digital topographic maps of the Earth.
The radar has imaged mountains and deep valleys carved by glaciers and rivers - like those in the Andes, the Rocky Mountains and the Himalayas of Asia - vast expanses of deserts and coastal plains around the world, as well as cold regions and forests of the northern latitudes.
In the future any project that requires accurate knowledge of the shape and height of the land B like flood control, soil conservation, reforestation or volcano monitoring B will benefit.
After a series of delayed launch attempts, the mission got off to a perfect start on 11 February with Thiele reporting successful deployment of the 60 metre radar mast - the longest structure to be flown in space from the Shuttle - and activation of the complex radar instruments going more smoothly than expected.
"We'd expected that there would be more teething problems but the intensive training and preparations paid off," he said.
STRM is a joint project between NASA, the United States National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA), the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) and the Italian Space Agency (ASI). NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) developed the C-band Spaceborne Imaging Radar and DLR developed the X-band Synthetic Aperture radar (X-SAR). Dornier Satellitensysteme GmbH, a corporate unit of Daimler-Chrysler Aerospace (Dasa), is the prime contractor for the X-SAR system.
Although the first images have already been released, the gathering of the radar data from orbit marks only the end of the first phase. Scientists will spend another 18 months processing the huge volume of SRTM data.
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