CORVALLIS, Ore. – A sophisticated new imaging system developed by the Naval Research Laboratory has just been installed aboard the international space station, where it will scan coastal oceans and nearby land masses and beam the data to Earth.
The Hyperspectral Imager for the Coastal Ocean, or HICO, is the first space-borne sensor created specifically for observing the coastal ocean and will allow scientists to better analyze human impacts and climate change effects on the world’s coastal regions. The applications include oil spills, plankton growth, harmful algal blooms, and sediment plumes from major rivers.
The HICO science data will be archived at Oregon State University, which will be the repository for distribution to researchers in the United States and internationally.
“The timing couldn’t be better,” said Curtiss O. Davis, an OSU oceanographer and project scientist. “The development of different Earth observation systems, for whatever reason, has stalled. All of the current NASA ocean color sensors are beyond the end of their planned lifetimes. At a time when observation and analysis of the world’s oceans is critical to monitor climate change, we were losing our ability to do so.”
What the HICO system will do, Davis said, is provide much higher-resolution imaging and a full spectrum of color. Previous imaging systems had a resolution of about one kilometer and about nine spectral channels. HICO’s scale is at 90 meters and it has 90 spectral channels, which is “a tremendous leap forward,” he pointed out.
“In most previous systems, the imager would pick up grass, brush and trees and just display it all as green,” Davis explained. “When HICO becomes operational, we will be able to tell grass from shrubs, and in some case even identify the types of shrub. In the ocean, we can separate phytoplankton blooms from sediment plumes from rivers, and better measure chlorophyll levels in the ocean, which are associated with phytoplankton production.”
The imaging system has other scientific applications, using optics to analyze water clarity, shallow water bottom features, and on-shore vegetation.
The development of HICO is a story in itself. Such projects typically take up to a decade to develop, but when the opportunity became available to utilize the International Space Station for scientific observation of the oceans, the Naval Research Laboratory put the project on a fast track and developed HICO within 16 months, said Davis, who worked for the Navy lab for 11 years prior to joining the OSU faculty.
Using the International Space Station for such observation is also new and adds a different wrinkle to environmental monitoring. Its orbit is not “sun-synchronous” and thus the station platform offers a wide range of illumination angles and sampling times not available via satellite observation. This makes the station an ideal platform for an experimental sensor like HICO, researchers say.
“Never has the (space station) been utilized as a platform to conduct scientific Earth observations of this nature,” said Mike Corson, principal investigator for the HICO project at the Naval Research Laboratory’s Remote Sensing Division. “This collaboration of a diverse international and interagency consortium opens exciting opportunities for future basic and applied space-based research.”
Davis, the Naval Research Laboratory and officials at the Office of Naval Research are working on a protocol for how HICO projects will be approved and data shared. HICO was sponsored by the Office of Naval Research and is integrated and flown with the support and direction of the Department of Defense Space Test Program. Additional support was provided by NASA and the Japanese Space Agency JAXA.
“HICO can look anywhere, but its strength will be to monitor specific areas that are facing environmental pressures – such as the plume from the Mississippi River that creates a hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico, or at harmful algal blooms off our own Pacific coast,” Davis said.
He anticipates data will begin flowing in one to two months.
More information on HICO and applications of the data will be posted soon on an Oregon State University-HICO web site that is under construction.