On 31 January, the Space Shuttle Endeavour will lift off on the first Space Shuttle flight of the year which will drastically alter the way we look at Earth. ESA astronaut Gerhard Thiele, from Germany, will be one of the six crewmembers on board.
The Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) will carry out one of the most significant space surveys of our home planet ever undertaken, using precisely positioned radars to map the Earth's surface in close-up.
In just 11 days enough data will be gathered to produce a new map of almost the entire globe - some 80 percent of the Earth's land mass covering an area between the southern tip of Greenland and South Georgia, close to the Antarctic Circle.
Thiele is on his first space flight and once in orbit he will team up with mission commander Kevin Kregel and mission specialist Janet Kavandi on a daily 12-hour work shift.
The sole payload for this STS-99 Shuttle mission is a double radar system designed specifically for the mapping task. Two antenna will be deployed - one in the orbiter's payload bay and the other from the end of a mast extended 60 metres out from the Shuttle Endeavour.
Images taken simultaneously by the radars will give slightly different views of the same location. By combining the two, scientists will be able to generate 3D topographic maps and dramatic visualisations of the Earth's surface.
In the future any project that requires accurate knowledge of the shape and height of the land - flood control, soil conservation, reforestation, volcano monitoring, earthquake research and glacier movement monitoring - will benefit.
Among many practical applications are improved understanding of water drainage, more realistic landscapes for flight simulators, prime locations for cell phone towers, navigation safety and even improved maps for backpackers.
Thiele and his five international colleagues on the Shuttle will spend much of their time monitoring the radars and keeping a close check on data recording equipment.
As well as tweaking the Shuttle's position to make sure the radar systems remain perfectly aligned with their targets on Earth, the crew also has the tricky task of deploying a 60 metre mast at the start of the mission.
The mast - made of carbon fibre reinforced plastic - will be the longest rigid structure ever flown in space and is even longer than the Mir space station. The radar, developed in Germany and Italy, will be at the far end.
There are no scheduled space walks but Thiele is one of two crew members trained for any emergency work outside the Shuttle. Preparing for contingencies has been a key part of his training, especially the possibility of having to extend the 60 metre radar mast manually.
"This mission will create a huge amount of digital data - a staggering 270 MB every second and it all has to be stored on special tapes using high-rate recorders. Two will be running at any one time and one of our tasks is to ensure there are no problems," said ESA's astronaut G.Thiele.
SRTM 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 DaimlerChrysler Aerospace (Dasa), is the prime contractor for the X-SAR system.
Endeavour's January 31 launch window opens at 12:47 EST (17:47 GMT) and extends for two hours and two minutes. Landing is set to occur at Kennedy Space Center on February 11 at around 16:55 EST (21:55 GMT).
For further information, see the following web pages:
- ESA- http://www.estec.esa.int/spaceflight/operations/sts99.htm
- DLR- http://www.dlr.de/srtm
- NASA- http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/shuttle
For up-to-date information on the mission, contact the following press desks:
ESA/DLR desk at Oberpfaffenhofen, Germany:
Tel: (49) 8153/28-1802 or -1803
Fax: (49) 8153/28-3638
ESA desk at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida (29-31 Jan):
Tel: 1-321-637-0342 or 1-321-637-1453
ESA desk at the Johnson Space Center, Houston (2-12 Feb):