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NASA sends terrabytes of data to African environmental scientists

A unique partnership between NASA and agencies in Africa and Europe is sending more than 30 terabytes of free Earth science satellite data to South African researchers to support sustainable development and environmental applications in Africa.

A NASA statement says the data from one of the instruments on NASA’s Terra satellite provide observations of Africa’s surface and atmosphere, including vegetation structure, airborne pollution particles, cloud heights and winds.

Transfer of these data to a distribution centre in Africa will make it broadly accessible to African users who have not been able to remotely download the large data files because of limitations in the continent’s Internet infrastructure.

NASA is committed to helping governments, organizations and researchers around the world make effective use of Earth observation data to aid in environmental decision making,” said Hal Maring, a program manager in the Earth Science Division of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

“These efforts support the goals of the Group on Earth Observations, a partnership of international agencies that promotes collaborative use of Earth science data.”
South Africa’s CSIR helping to distribute the information
South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Pretoria will distribute the data at no charge to the research community in the region. The CSIR will facilitate access to the large volume of MISR data as part of its broad strategy of educating, training and transferring knowledge to the southern African research community.

“The data transfer can be seen as a birthday present from NASA to the newly-formed South African National Space Agency,” said Bob Scholes, CSIR research group leader for ecosystem processes and dynamics. “It will kick-start a new generation of high-quality land surface products, with applications in climate change and avoiding desertification.” Desertification is the gradual transformation of habitable land into desert due to climate change or destructive land use practices.

The partnership began in 2008, when MISR science team member Michel Verstraete of the European Commission Joint Research Centre Institute for Environment and Sustainability (JRC-IES) in Ispra, Italy, participated in an intensive CSIR field campaign to study the environment around Kruger National Park, a major wildlife reserve in South Africa.

The researchers studied the area using direct, airborne and space-based measurements. During the campaign, Verstraete learned of the widespread interest by the South African research community in remote-sensing techniques and applications.

“This multi-party collaboration will significantly strengthen academic and research institutions in southern Africa and support sustainable development of the entire subcontinent,” said Verstraete, who will spend six months in southern Africa next year to help the regional remote-sensing community use the data.
In response, JRC-IES and CSIR signed an agreement in July 2008 to facilitate the interaction and exchange of people, knowledge, data and software.

Where the data comes from

NASA became involved in the collaboration in 2009 after a training workshop for MISR users in Cape Town, South Africa, organized by JPL and Langley Research Center. Although the workshop sparked interest in the potential use of MISR data, it soon became apparent that accessing a large volume of data was a major hurdle for research and applications in developing countries in general and Africa in particular.

While Internet connectivity in Africa has improved greatly in recent years, access and bandwidth remain too limited to support downloading vast data files. This led the CSIR to host the data directly.

The data originate from the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer (MISR) on the Terra satellite. MISR has been making continuous measurements of Earth’s surface and atmosphere for more than a decade and observes the sunlit portion of Earth continuously, viewing the entire globe between 82 degrees north and 82 degrees south latitude every nine days. Instead of viewing Earth from a single perspective, the instrument collects images from nine widely spaced view angles

For more information on MISR, click here