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Endeavour Radar Surveys Oil Spill, Steering Jets Working Again

October 6, 1994

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) _ Space shuttle Endeavour’s powerful radar detected an intentional spill of oil and algae from 135 miles up Thursday, discerning black streaks that looked like an armada off the coast of Denmark.

German scientists dumped more than 100 gallons of diesel oil and algae products into the sea just before Endeavour soared overhead to see if the radar could distinguish between the two substances.

The early results indicated that it could.

Researchers applauded when they saw the radar images beamed down to Earth. They thought they could discern the two oil slicks from the five patches of algae, but wanted to analyze the images further to make sure, said Franz-Peter Spaunhorst, a spokesman for the German space agency, which helped coordinate the experiment.

There was tension on both sides of the Atlantic - and in space - until the radar pictures started streaming down.

Endeavour’s six tiny steering jets shut down Wednesday because of a failed temperature sensor, preventing the radar instruments from being aimed properly and forcing some targets to be scrapped. NASA put together a computer program to bypass the sensor and restore use of the jets, but not in time for the spill.

To save the experiment, astronaut Daniel Bursch took manual control of the jets and accurately pointed the radar instruments at the 106 gallons of diesel oil and 26 gallons of algae byproducts. The slicks covered a small area about 18 miles west of the German island of Sylt and required precision pointing.

″I was very pleased that we were able to catch this scene because it was the only chance between two days of bad weather,″ said Herwig Oettl, a German who monitored the experiment from Mission Control in Houston.

As promised, two oil-recovery ships quickly cleaned up the mess. Environmentalists waited on shore, watching the event on TV monitors to make sure no wildlife was harmed.

The $366 million radar - the most advanced ever flown in space for environmental monitoring - was built by the United States, Germany and Italy. It has flown in orbit only once before, in April.

If the radar can distinguish between oil spills and the sheen naturally produced by fish and plankton, the next step would be to put it in permanent orbit aboard a satellite. Scientists say such a satellite could allow oil spills to be detected and cleaned up more quickly.

Endeavour’s six-man crew resumed normal use of the steering jets after the spill, allowing full radar observations to resume. All data lost as a result of the jet problem will be recovered later in the flight, officials said.

NASA added an 11th day to the mission to allow for more radar observations. Endeavour is now due back Tuesday.

Endeavour’s air-pollution monitor, meanwhile, has detected high levels of carbon monoxide above South America, southern Africa, across the Atlantic Ocean between those two continents, and north of Australia. That’s a result of extensive grassland and forest burning, NASA scientist Henry Reichle said.

The carbon monoxide emissions reduce the ability of the atmosphere to clean itself, Reichle said. As expected for this time of year, the Northern Hemisphere’s lower atmosphere is relatively clean.

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