August 28, 2006 5:37 PM PDT

Inaugural wildfire-mapping mission delayed

NASA and the U.S. Forest Service have had to delay Tuesday's inaugural joint mission to test a new system for monitoring forest fires.

The system would provide firefighters with real-time maps and imagery of wildfires. The mission has been postponed until Sept. 6 based on several factors, including tighter Federal Aviation Administration regulations due to terrorism fears, according to Vincent Ambrosia, principal investigator of the Western States Unmanned Aerial System Fire Mission at NASA's Ames Research Center.

Altair

"We see it as a stepping stone this year, and then further development next year during fire season," Ambrosia said in an interview Monday. "We may be slightly held back this year due to the FAA regulations, understandably."

The Altair unmanned aircraft being used for the mission is an adaptation of the Predator UAV, which has been used on air strikes against suspected terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Altair was built by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems for NASA as a scientific platform and is controlled by satellite communications. The San Diego-based company will be operating the aircraft's flight and navigation, while NASA's Ames Research Center is providing the image sensing system, Ambrosia said.

The Altair will be loaded with NASA's sensor system, AMS (Autonomous Modular System)-Wildfire. The AMS-Wildfire system can determine temperature differences from 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit to as little as half a degree, according to NASA. Being able to distinguish temperatures is important when it comes to mapping the movement of wildfires.

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Video: NASA satellite senses forest fires
Network of sensors monitors the globe for hazards such as fires.

While this particular AMS is built for wildfire mapping, the Altair could be altered for other types of data collecting, according to Ambrosia.

"It could be configured to fly other missions," he said. "If they were flying a hurricane mission, they could change out the tech to look at that info. So, that's the modular part of it."

While the data that will be collected has been available through Aqua and Terra, two of NASA's Earth-observing environmental satellites, the AMS-Wildfire system will allow the data to be transferred into imagery and maps in real time. For this test mission, the aircraft will be flown over the Western United States, with the data being transferred to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, and also to a chosen incident commander on the ground.

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