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"Sensing" a Change to Open Operations for Space Station's HICO Instrument

NASA has decided to continue to support and expand the use of the International Space Station's Hyperspectral Imager for the Coastal Ocean (HICO) instrument.
  • <strong>The Hyperspectral Imager for the Coastal Ocean (HICO) instrument on its rotating spindle.
Image Credit: U.S. Naval Research Laboratory</strong>
  • <strong>View of the Hyperspectral Imager for Coastal Oceans (HICO) installed on the Japanese Experiment Module - Exposed Facility and the port side solar array wings. Image Credit: NASA</strong>
  • <strong>These are images taken from the International Space Station using the Hyperspectral Imager for the Coastal Ocean (HICO) instrument.Image Credit: NASA</strong>
    HOUSTON, TX, July 13, 2013 /24-7PressRelease/ -- Repurposing is a very green way of making new use of something after it's completed its original mission. With this in mind, NASA decided to continue to support and expand the use of the International Space Station's Hyperspectral Imager for the Coastal Ocean (HICO) instrument, which completed its original mission in orbit last year.

HICO is an imaging instrument that sees beyond the colored wavelengths of light that are visible to the human eye. HICO observes the Earth in the visible and near infrared wavelengths, and the instrument can produce select, highly-detailed (90m resolution) images for research and management of terrestrial and aquatic environments.

The HICO mission was sponsored by the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and the Department of Defense (DoD) Space Test Program, and the sensor was designed, built and is operated by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL). The instrument was originally a technology demonstration to create an affordable hyperspectral sensor that could be deployed swiftly to the space station to obtain environmental information in the coastal regions.

HICO now is meeting new, unanticipated needs. For instance, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) already has tapped HICO as a resource to gauge coastal water quality. The data from HICO also may be incorporated into a related smartphone app in the future. As new users expand the instrument's purpose, the possibilities of new applications of HICO data grow.

HICO's funding through ONR ended in December 2012, at which point NASA began funding the instrument operations. Current users can still submit proposals through the HICO website. The process for new users and data collection proposals is being finalized and details will be forthcoming in Summer 2013.

To maximize and prioritize scientific and commercial use of the sensor, new proposals for HICO data collection will be submitted through the HICO website, but will be vetted in a coordinated fashion with the International Space Station Program, NASA's Science Mission Directorate, the HICO project scientist, and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS). Oregon State University, where the project scientist resides, manages the HICO website, and NRL operates the sensor itself.

"Finding novel uses--both research and applied--for datasets or extracting new information from them is a natural activity within the physical science and remote sensing communities," said William Stefanov, Ph.D., senior remote sensing specialist with NASA's International Space Station Program Science Office. "At present and for the immediate future, new users can propose to become HICO 'taskers' through the existing application interface."

Materials in the ocean, such as algae, have a "light signature" as constituents in the water absorb and scatter solar energy or radiation at unique wavelengths. Scientists and managers can use information from HICO to detail the biological and chemical signatures of aquatic and terrestrial materials, which helps them to answer research questions about the oceans and the Earth. When HICO scans an area selected by a user, the sensor can reveal things invisible to the human eye, such as chemical compounds or the presence of microscopic sea life.

"The instrument is particularly well-suited to looking at plant chemistry, water chemistry and water quality (such as the EPA work), but it might also be useful for looking at coastal land areas under the right conditions for soil mineralogy, plant stress and land cover classification," said Stefanov. "At a base level, the data could conceivably be used for any kind of spectral analysis appropriate to its sensor design, wavelength range and spatial resolution characteristics."

Although the instrument has completed its primary mission of collecting coastal ocean data for civilian and naval research, it still is in excellent condition. As such, NASA's space station program decided to maintain operations from HICO's perch on the Japanese Experiment Module Exposed Facility aboard the orbiting outpost.

NRL will release historical HICO data for scientific use. This information, along with data gathered beginning January 1, 2013 forward, will be available to users to access via the Ocean Color website, managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. NASA, in conjunction with its HICO partners, is developing user approval and data distribution processes to meet the needs of what likely will be a growing set of users.

"The thought is that by making the HICO data publically available, it will not only expand the user base and help develop the science and applications of hyperspectral data in general, but it also will demonstrate the usefulness of the station as a platform for such data collection and justify continued sensor development and deployment," said Stefanov.

HICO also serves as a participant in the United Nations International Charter for Space and Major Disasters response efforts. When the charter puts out a call for imagery of areas impacted by natural disasters, HICO and the other orbital observation instruments collect data on a "best-effort" basis. These images and data are available online for organizations in compromised regions to share with responders on the ground for the production of near real-time maps and other resource aids.

Jessica Nimon
International Space Station Program Science Office
NASA's Johnson Space Center

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