Astronaut from Essex set for another shuttle mission

August 16, 1994|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun Staff Writer

After barely four months on the ground, Essex native Dr. Tom Jones is set to rocket back into space this week with five other shuttle astronauts for the second half of a mission begun in April to map the Earth's features with radar and study global air pollution.

NASA's powerful Space Radar Laboratory, mounted in the shuttle Endeavour's payload bay, will record seasonal changes in the Earth's surface since April, search for traces of the ancient Silk Road beneath the sands of western China, measure volcanic threats to urban areas and the effects of forest fires in the western United States and northern Asia.

"Not only is it a really interesting mission scientifically, but NASA's challenge is to show that we can execute these missions in [quick succession]," said Dr. Jones. Routine launches with quick turnarounds of the four orbiters will be needed during construction of the planned space station. The shuttle Columbia flew in July. Discovery and Atlantis are to go in September and October.

Endeavour is scheduled to lift off at 6:54 a.m. EDT Thursday and return to Florida on Aug. 28. If he goes as planned, Dr. Jones will break the astronaut record for the shortest time between missions.

In Essex, his mother, Rosemarie Jones, sister Nancy Oldewurtel and brother David Jones were planning to drive to Cape Canaveral again to join his wife, Elizabeth, and two children.

Now a space veteran, and the only crew member who flew with these same experiments in April, Dr. Jones will fly this time as payload commander.

Once in orbit 138 miles above the Earth, the four space veterans and two rookies will split into two 12-hour shifts. Endeavour's radar eyes should see a planet much-changed since April.

"All the snow cover . . . is going to be gone and the forests will have leafed out. It should be quite dramatic," said Dr. Jones, 39, a former B-52 pilot and planetary scientist who graduated from Kenwood High and the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Endeavour's experiments are intended to test the radar laboratory's ability to measure surface features and conditions in all seasons. The readings will be tested against thousands of photographs taken from the shuttle and data gathered by scientists on the ground. Once proven on Endeavour, the technology will be adapted for launch aboard unmanned satellites as part of NASA's Mission to Planet Earth.

The Space Radar Laboratory, which nearly fills the payload bay, can beam radar signals through clouds and darkness to map geological features, survey agricultural land use, assess soil moisture and measure carbon stored in forests and crops.

Beaming the radar signals through dry desert sand, the astronauts will resume the mapping of features beneath the Sahara's dunes and search for traces of the ancient Silk Road in western China.

There will be radar volcanology, as well. Images shot in April detected two previously unrecognized volcanoes in Bolivia and Colombia that have erupted within the last few hundred to a thousand years.

"That was rather surprising," said Dr. Jones. Ground maps of the areas show nothing but mountain contours, and "you can't practicably go in on the ground because you would be shot by the drug cartels."

New to this mission will be a three-day experiment in radar interferometry, a technique that uses stereoscopic images to produce highly accurate contour maps.

The United States' contours have been mapped to an accuracy of about 33 feet, Dr. Jones said. But "most of the rest of the world has nothing like that."

In just a few years, radar could produce maps 10 times as accurate of the entire Earth.

Then, by comparing successive radar images, scientists would be able to detect changes of less than an inch. That would reveal ground movements after earthquakes, and the swelling of volcanic formations in advance of eruptions.

As part of a 10-year United Nations project, the Endeavour astronauts plan to take radar interferometry measurements of 15 active volcanoes close to population centers.

"We're hoping it will do something to reduce major loss of life due to volcanoes," Dr. Jones said.

The MAPS (for Measurement of Air Pollution) experiment will be trained again on fires used to clear tropical forests for agriculture -- part of a global warming investigation begun in April. But northern fires are also being studied.

"We're really interested in seeing what the sensors will see of the western [U.S.] forest fires," Dr. Jones said. An estimated 800,000 to 1 million acres have burned this summer.

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