UM-designed software launches into space

UM programmers excited for blast-off

In May when a billion-dollar NASA satellite the size of a semi-truck sitting on top of
a "huge" rocket blasts into space carrying UM designed software, programmer
Andrew Neuschwander will be on hand to watch the launch.

Kristen Inbody
Montana Kaimin

"Any time you essentially launch a building off the planet, it’s got to be pretty
impressive," he said.

This will be Neuschwander’s first time viewing a space launch, and the second time
UM-designed software will be blasted into space.

Neuschwander, a member of the Numerical Terradynamic Simulation Group at UM’s
NASA Science Compute Facility is hoping for "just a few clouds" for the night
launch because he was told that the clouds glow as the rocket moves through them.

Though the launch date, originally scheduled for Thursday, has been postponed, UM
forestry professor Steve Running has been notified that the Aqua satellite is in the
final stages of launch preparation.

Running said Aqua, the second NASA satellite to carry UM-developed software in
the past three years, is now tentatively scheduled to lift off from California’s
Vandenberg Air Force Base on May 2. However, Running said it’s nearly impossible
to project when a NASA spacecraft will be launched.

He 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.

Aqua, which will carry the same software Running and his team developed for Terra,
was originally scheduled to be launched in December 1999. Terra actually took off
then after years of delays.

"I learned a long time ago that you don’t even try to predict these things," Running

Programmer Chad Bowker said the Aqua launch was delayed because NASA
wanted to take extra time to go over the computer systems.

"I don’t mind if they take their time so there’s less chance of something going
wrong," said Bowker. He also plans to attend the launch, which will be his first time
witnessing a blast-off.

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 Aqua satellite has numerous sensors, each measuring different ranges of the
electromagnetic spectrum, said Matt Reeves, a forestry grad student who uses the

The sensors look at "all sorts of different things _ oceans, atmosphere, landscapes,"
said Saxon Holbrook, assistant system and network analyst.

The UM software on Terra, which hits the earth’s equator at 10:30 a.m. MST each
day, provides scientists with data on vegetation growth rates all over the world.
Aqua, which will hit the equator at 1:30 p.m. MST, 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.

"They will each give a different snapshot of the earth," Running said of Aqua and
Terra. "The only difference will be the afternoon orbit, but that will allow us to use the
data in different ways."

The new satellite, which will orbit 438 miles above the earth, will "tell where in the
world has the least cloud cover when," Neuschwander said.

That is important because with cloud cover, the satellite has to essentially guess
what the vegetation is like underneath, he said.

"The long term aim is similar to climate forecasting but for ecological forecasting,"
Neuschwander said. "It will have applications like agriculture and forest

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 new
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 he’s just as excited about the upcoming satellite launch, Running said now
that he has personally witnessed Terra take off, the Aqua lift-off should seem
somewhat more routine. And he said he doubts the large contingent of UM
personnel who accompanied him to the Terra lift-off 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."

That’s probably true for Running, but for programmer Chad Bowker the excitement
level is on a higher plane, he said. Bowker, who writes software packages around
the data from the satellite, will be heading to California for the launch.

"I’m just going because to me it’s something I’ve never seen before, and it ties into
what I’m doing," Bowker said. "It is interesting as completion of the circle to see it

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