NASA Radar To Study Gulf Oil Spill

The same technology used to detect the effect of a Mexican earthquake on the earth's surface will help determine how oil has penetrated ecological zones in the Gulf of Mexico.
Researchers in the Deepwater Horizon spill cleanup effort will soon have new images of the properties of the oil slick thanks to NASA radar technology recently used to study the effects of seismic activity on earth.

NASA's Uninhabited Aerial Vehicle Synthetic Aperture Radar (UAVSAR) -- which the agency also used to determine how an April earthquake in Mexico moved a part of the California-Mexico border -- was deployed over the Gulf this week on a NASA Gulfstream III.

The radar was expected to take a series of images of the spill on survey flights over the coastal areas from Western Louisiana to the Florida Keys, coordinating information it gathers with ground and surface-ship measurements to help determine the properties of the spill, according to NASA.

Researchers hope that measurements taken by UAVSAR combined with other monitoring information can help them determine the extent to which the oil has penetrated sensitive coastal ecological zones.

They also hope to gather baseline data for studies on how long the effects of the spill will persist, which areas will be most affected and to help inform the damage-recovery process.

The UAVSAR's flights follow previous imaging missions NASA has undertaken to help with the spill relief effort at the request of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which has been overseeing the effort since the spill occurred April 20.

Those missions were flown by NASA's ER-2 science aircraft with a device called the Airborne Visible/Infrared Imaging Spectrometer (AVIRIS) on board, and were focused on trying to determine the thickness and composition of the oil.

NASA is one of several government agencies that have been contributing technology to the spill relief efforts, which have passed the two-month mark. Eleven people were killed when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank in April. Oil giant BP was leasing the rig and is currently under investigation by the federal government for what is being called the most serious disaster of its kind.

BP managed to cap the oil spewing from an underground well earlier this month, capturing some of the oil to bring it to the surface and burn it off. Earlier this week, however, the cap was damaged and BP removed it. The company refit the cap on Thursday, but U.S. scientists estimate that anywhere from 30,000 to 60,000 barrels of oil a day continues to flow into the Gulf.