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All systems go

Steve Running's 50th birthday was Tuesday, but the University of Montana scientist didn't mind waiting until Wednesday to get one final gift. That's when Running and other members of his research team at UM got the official word from NASA that all was well with the Terra satellite - the $1 billion Earth-observing spacecraft carrying UM-designed software that is now orbiting about 470 miles above the Earth.

"Three days before Earth Day, we have determined that all five instruments aboard Terra are in great shape," Yoram Kauffman, the Terra satellite project director, said Wednesday morning in a televised press conference.

The report from Kauffman and other NASA scientists was met with enthusiasm by Running and about 25 other people who gathered in a conference room on the UM campus to listen to the Terra update.

"I've put 18 years into this launch," Running said after the announcement. "It's been a real gut-wrenching Hollywood thriller. But we're now past the initial thrills and chills. This inaugurates the serious science data. … That's what is going to be important to humanity."

Running and his research team had actually received a sneak preview of how Terra, which in December was launched after months of delays at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, was performing.

For the past four weeks, they have been working with images from the software they designed to monitor various facets of the Earth's health such as vegetation growth, forest fire potential and drought conditions.

But Wednesday's announcement from the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland was the first official proclamation that all five of the instruments on board Terra were functioning properly in monitoring the Earth's oceans, land masses and atmosphere.

"It's actually going better than we had hoped," Running said. "I think we're ahead of schedule. The Terra platform as a whole is going well. All five sensors are working and all of the tiny rockets that steer it through space are doing well."

Running said while his team has developed preliminary images of vegetation growth from its software, they are still working on perfecting the data they are receiving from Terra.

"We're still working on getting the computer bugs out," he said. "We're now processing from software we've never used before. So we have to go through it all and get the bugs out."

However, Running said, UM researchers hope to begin passing on data to land managers within a couple of months.

"The timing is perfect. It's now mid-April and we will be able to follow the vegetation growth all summer long. We will be able to watch the whole continent green up," Running said.

The data from Terra could be particularly useful this year, Running said, because there are already indications that much of North America could face a serious drought.

"The most immediate benefit will be for fire management people," he said. "They will be able to use this to see where fire danger is increasing."

Once the full benefits of Terra are realized, Running said UM will offer courses to both land managers and owners and educators that will teach them how to use the data in the field and the classroom.

"Every eight days for the next six years, we will be able to monitor the whole world," Running said. "It will be a global monitor of environmental change on the Earth's surface. The point of this satellite is not to just take one nice picture, but to constantly monitor the Earth."

Vince Salomonson, the team leader for MODIS, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer which carries the UM software, said during the press conference that the satellite enables scientists to study the Earth like never before.

"Effectively we will now be able to watch the Earth breathe," Salomonson said. "We will be able to monitor natural resources more effectively and educate future generations."

Reporter Gary Jahrig can be reached at 523-5259 or by e-mail at gjahrig@missoulian.com.

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