GPS and GIS Aid in the Search for and Analysis of Columbia Space Shuttle Debris

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GPS and GIS Aid in Search for and Analysis of Columbia Space Shuttle Debris

GPS and GIS are taking a vital role in the search for debris and the consequent analysis of the debris and satellite imagery data by NASA. In an NPR report this week by John Nielsen, NASA officials are making progress in the search for clues as to why the Columbia Space Shuttle fell apart. On the border of Texas and Louisiana, more than 12,000 different pieces of debris have been identified, at another location a little west of Ft. Worth, and another 250 items collected in Louisiana. The debris is now being loaded on trucks to take it to Kennedy Space Center. One of the pieces is from the left wing of the shuttle. Instruments indicated something was wrong on the left wing.

While fragments of tile and metal fell into the Texas mesquite, emergency responder Jack Colley coordinated a massive hunt of high tech people as well as people on horseback to search for the debris. Fisherman and hunters carrying GPS devices proved immensely helpful as they could record exactly where the pieces landed. Colley said this effort may have saved some lives by identifying where potentially toxic pieces might have fallen. By midday Colley was sending out more investigators with GPSes to find pieces and remains of astronauts. “This technology has been absolutely essential,” said Colley.

Wreckage finds were charted on maps of the region - and as the marks became numerous patterns emerged. These patterns will prove crucial to long term effects of the incident as responders try to locate the remains of the crew, remove debris from the area, and support a determination of what happened.

An effort to build a bigger picture of what happened began the morning of the Space Shuttle's fateful reentry at the Center for Space Research at University of Texas at Austin. Gordon Wells, mapping specialist, dashed to his office when he saw the debris field on TV. He could see from the pattern on the orbit map that the shuttle was destroyed. Working from the GPS data coming in from Colley's Command Center, Wells began charting the debris field. “It's a lot like mapping a crime scene,” said Wells. “It's like a 30,000 square mile forensic analysis. You need to pin down those locations and protect them, as they are evidentiary to the investigations that will be conducted in future.” Wells said the satellite photos of the area where shuttle parts fell are extremely accurate, even though they were taken from 50 miles up. He referred to imagery taken from the French satellite Spot 5 with 2.5 meter ground resolution. Wells adds vegetation, soil types, water levels and wind currents to his maps as this information will help investigators to make predictions and locate wreckage.

Computer specialists at NASA will soon begin combining the maps with other data. The goal is to rewind the tapes of this catastrophe to find out which pieces fell off first to retrace the arc of the descent of the shuttle to the ground. Said Wells: “NASA will be able to use telemetry from sensors that were transponding information to the earth's surface as it was falling, and they can use other imagery and photography taken during reentry and descent and connect these absolute point locations on the earth's surface where that particular piece landed, and then reconstruct that trajectory back up to the orbiter as it was as a whole.” If this effort is successful NASA will be able to simulate countless accident scenarios until they come up with a series of events that precisely matches the data that was collected.

Industry News

I'm the eternal optimist but recently, financial reports not only for GIS companies but other technology vendors as well, have been quite depressing. Last week Bentley Systems announced their preliminary results for 2002, which showed a definite increase in revenue. The year was marked by revenues rising by 14% to $230 million, sustained and increased profitability, expansion of its subscription licensing program, and future-growth investments including verticalization and several strategic acquisitions. The company also announced that it had closed the acquisition of Infrasoft Corporation.

Among the top three providers listed in market research firm Daratech's new Architecture/Engineering/Construction/Operations (A/E/C/O) rankings, Bentley is the only one with positive corporate revenue growth in reports for 2002. It is not clear how much revenue is derived from GIS-related industries.

Bentley is a privately held company. Last summer the company had applied for an IPO, then withdrew their application because general market conditions were unfavorable to IPOs. They have recently acquired Infrasoft Corporation, a global software and services company with operations based in the United Kingdom. They also recently acquired Rebis and WorkPlace Wisdom for Bentley Plant; the Department of Transportation Division of TransDecisions, Inc., for Bentley Civil; and Cadac. These acquisitions have reinforced Bentley's vertical resources and boosted its vertical product portfolios.

“Despite global economic factors, 2002 was successful for Bentley,” said Greg Bentley, CEO. “Our positive financial indicators affirm the increasing value of our solutions to users and the merits of our subscription-based business model. Moreover, our expanded market presence and corporate resources allowed us to attract and complete strategic acquisitions.”

Bentley derives a large majority of its revenue through subscription programs. Subscription offerings expanded in late 2002 with the introduction of the Enterprise Subscription program. The program is designed for major accounts, who want on-demand, organization-wide term license rights to Bentley products for a predetermined fee, reset annually.

“We exited 2002 at an annualized subscription run-rate of over $160 million and accordingly, with acquisitions, we expect to continue double-digit revenue growth throughout 2003,” said Greg Bentley.

United Nations (U.N.) personnel recently took a modified version of the “Fundamentals of ERDAS IMAGINE” course from Leica Geosystems' Education Services to learn to quickly process and analyze satellite imagery. The UN plans to use the training for missions such as humanitarian aid, ecological monitoring and briefing the U.N. Security and other councils.

Leica Geosystems' Education Direct program customized the course to fit the UN's specific needs and taught on-site at U.N. Headquarters (New York, New York). The course was conducted in December 2002. Among the personnel that took the course were the U.N. Department of Public Information, Cartographic Section, the U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and the U.N. Monitoring and Verification Commission staff members.

The modified Fundamentals course was basically an introduction to the concepts of remote sensing and Geographic Information Systems (GIS), as well as classification, orthorectification and image mosaicking capabilities of IMAGINE Essentials®, IMAGINE Advantage® and IMAGINE Professional®, the three levels available in the ERDAS IMAGINE software suite.


NovaLIS Technologies, a provider of integrated land records management solutions, announced the acquisition of Cott-Charlotte, the North Carolina-based Division of Cott Systems. A division of Cott Systems for 15 years, Cott-Charlotte has had responsibilities for the development and delivery of Computer Assisted Mass Appraisal (CAMA), Tax Billing, Collection, and Motor Vehicles software modules.

NovaLIS' software is an open, flexible system that makes migration of legacy systems easier. In the past 18 months, NovaLIS has enjoyed a rapidly growing presence in the mass appraisal software industry. NovaLIS President/CEL Gary Waters said the company has targeted the redevelopment of the Cott-Charlotte PASCO CAMA system to NovaLIS Assessment Office as the first step in their conversion process.

“This acquisition enhances both our knowledge and client base. Cott-Charlotte has successfully delivered solutions to tax offices in Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia. The people at Cott-Charlotte share our commitment to the user base and want to ensure the software they use continues to provide value,” says Gary Waters.

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