MTI satellite begins scientific work, maps Los Alamos fire damage

With its orbital checkout phase complete, the Multispectral Thermal Imager satellite (MTI) is inaugurating the scientific-data development stage of its three-year mission by starting to provide pictures of the fire-ravaged Los Alamos area, among other US sites.

The Multispectral Thermal Imager is a research and development project sponsored by the US Department of Energy, a joint project of Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories and the Savannah River Technology Center.

Los Alamos is receiving data from the satellite across 15 spectral bands (only three of which are visible to the human eye) at the Laboratory’s Data Processing and Analysis Center. There the team processes the data into images and is ready to begin scientific analysis and distribute data products to varied civilian and government research partners in this project. The DPAC is the main data and distribution center for data and data products for MTI.

Paul Weber, head of the Space and Remote Sensing Sciences group at Los Alamos, said the excellent spatial resolution of the instrumentation and the specific spectral range offered by MTI will be most useful in tracking regrowth of trees and ground cover in the wake of the fire. Across visible bands, the satellite can provide five-meter resolution, and in other wavelengths it is accurate to 20 meters. This compares with 10- to 30-meters resolution for other imaging satellite systems currently in use.

The Data Processing and Analysis Center, located within the Laboratory’s Technical Area 3, was among the facilities that were forced to run unattended for more than a week during the peak of the Cerro Grande fire activity. And until power supplies were cut off to a communication station in another building, data was successfully downloaded and processed automatically by the center’s computers.

Other images already of interest to the scientific partners are shots of Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano, where the team is already engaged in collaborative activities with NASA and the University of Hawaii. The NASA Terra satellite has produced data on the volcano, but at 90-meters spatial resolution.

The MTI concentrates on smaller areas and has better spatial resolution, thus providing an excellent complement to Terra. Some of the first MTI data on Hawaii engendered a comment of ‘Awesome!’ from several researchers. Comparing satellite with ground data in each of these and other cooperative US locations will further improve the modeling and analysis techniques used in similar satellite and sensor-development projects.

To gather its image data, MTI looks through a 36-centimeter aperture and uses a bank of three sensor chip assemblies, each carrying 15 arrays of cryogenically cooled detectors. The arrays provide MTI with nearly 17,000 tiny detectors, each no larger than the tip of a well-sharpened pencil. The 510-pound instrument is designed to be self-correcting in its data gathering, adjusting for the effects of clouds, water vapor, and airborne particles present in each image of the ground. Such corrections ensure that data analysts have full information about the factors affecting images, exactly as they are captured.

The satellite also carries a High-energy X-ray Spectrometer (HXRS) sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Czech Republic’s Astronomical Institute of the Academy of Sciences and developed by Space Devices, Ltd., also of the Czech Republic. This instrument will collect data needed to better understand a rare species of solar flare associated with high-energy particle storms that can endanger astronauts and damage space equipment.

The project’s three-year mission objectives are to advance the state-of-the-art in multispectral and thermal imaging, image processing and associated technologies, and to better understand the utility of these technologies. Data from the satellite will be received at a ground station at Sandia, then transmitted to the Data Processing and Analysis Center at Los Alamos.