NASA Surveys Oil Spill with Earthquake Aircraft

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Earthquake surveillance technology that takes images of cracks and destruction after a quake on land could be the next line of defense for oil spill clean-up efforts in the Gulf of Mexico.

Outfitted with “sophisticated synthetic aperture radar” on its underside, NASA’s Gulfstream III environmental research aircraft launched a brief mission to fly over the oil-affected areas of the Gulf from June 22-24, according to the space agency’s website.

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The image above shows the intended flight pattern in white lines for the G-III. The aircraft itself is shown below.

The souped-up radar is NASA’s Uninhabited Aerial Vehicle Synthetic Aperture Radar (UAVSAR), which NASA also used to determine how the April earthquake in Mexico moved a part of the California-Mexico border, InformationWeek.com reports.

Mission managers hope that these high-tech radar images captured from these flyovers will help give researchers a more accurate measurement of what’s floating on the surface of the Gulf now — two months after the first reports of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion.

Some of the things on UAVSAR’s to-do list include: determining the oil slick’s properties, finding out how deep the oil has seeped into the Gulf coast and getting a read on how clean-up efforts on the coast are progressing and what more needs to be done. Most importantly, NASA scientists are hopeful that USVSAR’s data will provide some sense of how long the Gulf will feel the effects of the disaster.

Before you accuse NASA of sleeping on the disaster-recovery job, you should know that these radar flights are just the space agency’s latest efforts. Prior to UAVSAR, NASA also sent out their ER-2 science aircraft with AVIRIS — Airborne Visible/Infrared Imaging Spectrometer. Those missions were focused on trying to determine the thickness of the oil on the water and what else could be floating around in it, according to NASA’s website.

Recent estimates show about 80 million to 150 million gallons of oil have now poured into the Gulf since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20 — that’s up to 60,000 barrels a day.

To follow our up-to-date coverage and analysis of the oil spill disaster and recovery efforts, click on our oil spill Wide Angle page here.

Photo credits: NASA/JPL