Missoula scientist Steve Running prepares for launch of second satellite
Steve Running is no stranger to playing the waiting game when it comes to satellite launches.
The University of Montana’s nationally renowned rocket scientist spent the better part of the ’90s
waiting for NASA’s $1.3 billion Terra satellite to leave the ground, carrying computer software
developed in Running’s lab on the Missoula campus.
By GARY JAHRIG of the Missoulian
Now, more than two years after Terra was sent into orbit, its sister satellite, Aqua, is scheduled for
liftoff later this month from the same coastal California launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base.
"It’s original launch date was for December ’99," Running said "It has slid back the same way Terra
After waiting this long for Aqua’s launch, Running, because of scheduling conflicts, actually would
prefer that it was delayed further from the tentative April 25 liftoff so he can be in attendance. He’s
due in Washington, D.C., that day to attend a high-level national committee meeting on global
warming, a topic directly related to Running’s satellite research.
"Obviously they don’t launch rockets around Steve Running’s schedule in Missoula," he said. "But I
would love it if it slipped a day or two. Missing a normal meeting for the launch would not be a big
deal. But this is very important for global warming research.
Running, who has received more than $10 million in grant money from NASA in the past three years,
said the Aqua satellite will be equipped with the same software on its platform that Terra currently
carries in orbit. But because of the different times of day the satellites will orbit the Earth, the
software will provide a different type of data to researchers at NASA and in Running’s UM lab.
The UM software on Terra, which hits the Earth’s equator at 10:30 a.m. MST each day, is
land-oriented and provides scientists with data on vegetation growth rates all over the world.
Aqua, which will hit the equator at 1:30 p.m. MST, is water-oriented and will have UM-designed
software that will provide data on drought conditions and fire danger worldwide. In order to accomplish
the afternoon orbit time, Aqua will have to be launched at 3 a.m. MST, Running said, which should be
a vastly different experience for observers than the late-morning Terra launch.
"The names aren’t gimmicks," Running said. "They will each give a different snapshot of the Earth.
They built both sensors at the same time. The only difference will be the afternoon orbit, but that will
allow us to use the data in different ways."
Running said that the lag time between the launch of Terra and the upcoming launch of Aqua was
probably a good move scientifically. He said when pioneering research in outer space, it’s always
good to have a backup plan in case something goes wrong.
"That means we’ve had a backup (instrument) on Earth while we’ve learned from Terra," Running said.
"I’m very happy it stayed on the ground so we could correct some small engineering problems. And if
a big meteorite hit Terra, we would still have another (instrument) on the ground."
While scientists have been pleased with the data being gleaned from Terra, Running said it is still a
work in progress because of the newness of the data being received.
"It’s functioning as planned," he said. "But the space environment is endlessly exciting. … Meteorites
the size of a grain of sand can cause all kinds of problems. And gamma rays from the sun could just
zap it out. Things just can go wrong in space. But we are getting what we wanted."
Running said his team of researchers have primarily been concentrating on monitoring daily
vegetation growth rates with the Terra data.
"We’re trying to do for the whole world what a gardener does with his garden," Running said. "We
want to chart seasonal patterns and how they change."
Eventually, Running said he would like to see UM play host to a data center where regional land
managers can come make use of the Terra information and learn how to interpret it.
"It’s pretty hard for somebody to just sit down and understand the data," he said. "We’ve got the
funding for personnel for such a center, but we don’t have a building to put it in. … That would enable
us to do a better job of serving the global research and Earth science communities."
Once Aqua gets off the ground, Running said his team will turn its attention toward a new NASA
project dubbed "Hydros." The satellite project, still in the planning stages, would be a collaborative
effort between Running’s team at UM and scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and
the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"There could be a whole cluster of grants surrounding this new mission," Running said. "NASA wants
us to look at how we can measure the frozen areas of the Earth each day. … If we can land it, it
would be another whole launch process."
While he’s just as excited about the next satellite launch, Running said now that he has personally
witnessed Terra take off, the Aqua liftoff should seem somewhat more routine. And he said he doubts
the large contingent of UM personnel who accompanied him to the Terra liftoff will be along this time
to watch the Aqua launch.
"No doubt we’re not as nervous and the expectations are not as extreme now that we have one that
has worked," he said. "The scientific expectations are just as high, but the emotional anticipation is
not as intense."
Reporter Gary Jahrig can be reached at 523-5259 or at [email protected].
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