ESRL Global Systems Division

NOAA Profiler Helps NASA with Columbia Tragedy Analysis

NOAA's Profiler Network (NPN) Program received requests Monday, February 03, 2003, from NASA and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) for NPN upper-air wind data collected during the breakup of the space shuttle Columbia. Nine of the 35 NPN profiling clear-air radars, located in the states of New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana, were near or directly under the flight path of the shuttle. Because the unmanned profilers automatically acquire wind data continuously from near the ground up to 53,000 feet, the times and horizontal and vertical positions of the falling fragments of Columbia were captured in the data.

The radar data from the profilers located at Palestine, TX and Winnfield, LA detected falling fragments from Columbia as it disintegrated. At Palestine, some larger fragments falling at speeds of 30 feet per second or more were detected minutes after NASA lost communications with Columbia. At Winnfield, a fall of much smaller but far more numerous particles was detected four to six hours following the breakup. It is likely that some are fine particles of aluminum from the shuttle's skin and frame, for they were highly reflective.

NOAA's Forecast Systems Laboratory (FSL) collected NPN data, reports from dozens of boundary-layer profilers operated by cooperative agencies, and water vapor data acquired using GPS-based technology and wrote them onto CD-ROMs. The CDs were sent by overnight package service to National Weather Service's (NWS) Southern Region Headquarters in Ft. Worth, TX, which is handling all coordination with NASA, NTSB and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Staff experts on the NPN will be available at FSL to provide technical support for the forensic analysis of the shuttle breakup. The NPN is unique in that no other observing system can provide the detail of information so critical for determining the time and space parameters associated with the Columbia breakup. Analysis of profiler data is fundamental in finding the root cause.

The Forecast Systems Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, operates and maintains the NPN for NOAA. The National Weather Service uses data from the 35 network profilers routinely in computer-generated forecasts, and its field forecasters tailor model guidance to local conditions. The NPN data are also available on the Global Telecommunication system for international users, and to everyone via the World Wide Web at Data are used by many other federal, state and local organizations for support in weather forecasting, aviation, and monitoring climate and air quality. One of NPN's customers is Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which uses NPN data as critical input to its dispersion model. The model supports work under contract to the Departments of Defense and Energy for Homeland Security.

Contact information
Name: Margot H Ackley
Tel: (303) 497-6791