U.S., Soviets share space data on depletion of ozone American device hitches ride into orbit

November 23, 1991|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Sun Staff Correspondent

GREENBELT -- The first joint U.S.-Soviet space effort in 16 years has successfully begun monitoring depletion of the Earth's protective ozone layer, scientists from both countries said yesterday.

A U.S.-built Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer (TOMS), launched aboard a Soviet satellite Aug. 15, is sending back "high-quality data," said an obviously pleased Dr. Vyacheslav Khattatov, deputy director of the Soviet Central Aerological Observatory.

Researchers from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and from the observatory, located near Moscow, made the announcement at a news conference at Goddard Space Flight Center.

Scientists said they were able to begin using the instrument despite sweeping political changes after the failed Aug. 18 Soviet coup.

As a result of those changes, Dr. Khattatov said, control of his observatory switched last month from the central government to the Russian republic.

"We basically have not noticed any increases in our budget," he said dryly, drawing laughs from NASA officials.

Dr. Arlin Krueger of NASA said current U.S. technology-transfer laws prohibited the launch of a state-of-the-art TOMS instrument aboard a Soviet satellite. So, NASA took off the shelf a TOMS built in 1975 as an engineer's model of the first spectrometer, launched aboard NASA's NIMBUS-7 satellite in 1978.

(Several advanced spectrometers are scheduled for launch over the next several years, NASA officials said.)

Dr. Krueger praised the current project as "highly successful."

"The quality of the experiment is independent of politics," he said.

In the early 1980s, the first TOMS provided scientists with dramatic evidence of the seasonal ozone hole over Antarctica that has been getting bigger each year.

That TOMS continues to operate, even though the NIMBUS-7 was designed to last only five years.

"I think the warranty on that satellite has run out," Dr. Jay Herman of NASA said. "Right now, we're operating on a prayer."

Fearing the loss of crucial ozone data, U.S. scientists scrambled in the late 1980s to find a way to launch a backup spectrometer.

The space shuttle program, drastically curtailed in the wake of the 1986 Challenger disaster, had no room. But in 1988 the Soviet space program agreed to carry a TOMS aboard one of its Meteor-3 satellites in exchange for sharing the data.

The launch occurred at the Plesetsk Cosmodrome Aug. 15 -- three days before the abortive Soviet coup.

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