New satellite receiving stations provide real-time environmental data
The new satellite receiving stations are situated on the roof of the Willard Hall Education Building.


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12:48 p.m., Aug. 17, 2010----It's a process that begins 22,000 miles above our heads -- satellites collect information about our planet and transmit it back to Earth.

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Thanks to two satellite receiving stations installed last month on the Newark campus, University of Delaware researchers will be among the few who can access that data as it streams in from space.

The equipment, located on the roof of the Willard Hall Education Building, benefits faculty and others who study changes in the mid-Atlantic environment. It will support a wide range of research projects, including ones that monitor coastal flooding; observe coastal waters for harmful algal blooms, which can deprive waters of oxygen; and track changes in ocean circulation that could be related to climate change.

One of the receivers provides information on land and ocean surface conditions such as sea-surface temperature, chlorophyll concentration, and currents, while the other focuses on atmospheric and weather changes such as tropical storm activity and temperatures.

“The two stations really complement each other because to understand what's happening in the atmosphere you need to know about what's happening at the surface of the earth and vice versa,” said Dan Leathers, professor of geography and deputy dean in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment (CEOE). “We have a lot of people in the college who are interested in interactions between the atmosphere and the land and ocean surface.”

Leathers, who led efforts to acquire the equipment, received support from a committee of CEOE faculty that included Xiao-Hai Yan, Mary A.S. Lighthipe Professor of Marine Studies; Matt Oliver, assistant professor of oceanography; Tracy DeLiberty, associate professor of geography, and Young-Heon Jo, assistant research professor of oceanography.

Supplied and installed by California-based SeaSpace Corp., the stations cost about $500,000. A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) grant obtained by CEOE Dean Nancy Targett funded them.

From their perch atop the Willard Hall Education Building -- chosen because it allows a 360-degree view of the horizon with no electromagnetic interference -- the receivers collect information on a large swath of the globe. They capture data on the middle of the Atlantic to the center of North America and from Cuba to Newfoundland.

The beauty of having such technology right on campus, said the scientists involved, is that it gives them access to real-time data. There are only a handful of the receiving stations on the east coast, and UD researchers previously had to depend on other organizations to obtain data.

“That meant a delay of hours or even days,” said Yan, who also directs UD's Center for Remote Sensing. “Now we can monitor our coast so we will know right away if there is anything we need to respond to, a significant weather event for example.”

UD researchers also plan to provide that information to others who can use it, including other university and government researchers as well as state government emergency response and monitoring agencies.

Educators at the K-12 level are also expected to make use of the information. The Delaware Geographic Alliance plans to work with teachers to create teaching models that rely on such data for lessons on topics like meteorology or ocean currents.

Another benefit of the technology is that it provides raw data directly from the satellites. The data that come from the satellites give the intensity of electromagnetic radiation at different frequencies or wavelengths, Leathers explained.

“What the researchers really will be doing is developing algorithms or formulas to pull a bunch of those different frequencies and put them together in a way that tells you something,” he said. “They want that raw data so they can come up with algorithms to figure out better ways to look at what's happening on the earth's surface.”

Helping facilitate the huge amount of data will be a new technician to be hired this summer. That position, also funded by the NOAA grant, is designed for someone who will be responsible for data storage and dissemination to users.

Article by Elizabeth Boyle
Photos by Evan Krape