Advanced mapping technology helps Corsicana, Texas crews locate shuttle debris.

A leading NASA engineer has tapped Maine-based DeLorme, an innovator in digital mapping and geospatial data collection and distribution, to aid in the Shuttle Columbia recovery efforts. Within hours of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster investigative crews and researchers were marshaled in to help pinpoint the location of shuttle debris in an area that covered several states. Mapping the debris area became a critical component of the operation. DeLorme's latest professional mapping product, XMap 4.0, has been playing an integral role in the ongoing recovery effort.

During the early stages of the Space Shuttle Columbia debris search, a NASA engineer contacted DeLorme to pursue a mapping and data solution for the recovery effort. The engineer, who had used DeLorme's Topo USA® 4.0 in NASA's X-38 Crew Return Vehicle flight test program, was brought in from the Johnson Space Center to assist in the recovery effort. The XMap 4.0 mapping software seamlessly integrates satellite imagery with topographic data and imported user databases.

Since then, DeLorme has supplied NASA with copies of pre-release XMap 4.0, Earthmate GPS receivers, and a variety of geographic datasets developed for use within the XMap Professional Mapping Software suite - including a custom-cut aerial and satellite composite imagery dataset covering the debris path across Texas and into Louisiana.

The software was loaded on a laptop, connected to a GPS receiver, and taken by recovery team members as they flew search missions across central Texas. The GPS bread-crumb trail feature, superimposed onto a zoomed-in satellite image, provided real-time visual data to the helicopter pilot indicating their exact location within a given search field. "Xmap 4.0 allowed a more accurate search within large fields. When the crew temporarily dropped out of the search pattern to investigate/recover suspect debris, the real-time visual display was particularly useful in quickly getting them back into the search pattern," said Geoffrey Ives, DeLorme's director of professional sales. "Based on the comments heard from various field organizations, in particular the US Forest Service, the software will fill a real need, not just for this task but for other applications as well."

Post flight the GPS log was played back against a map imagery backdrop to document the exact search pattern. The program's Draw Tab was used to color in completed search areas and document recovered debris locations by attaching text and pic files to the map.

XMap 4.0 provided digital coordination of all the search data at one central location. The seamless integration of the Topo USA maps and satellite imagery, concurrent with the database overlay of recovered debris helped refine and document the search.

NASA is also evaluating the use of further DeLorme mapping systems in downloading vector and raster maps onto handheld Pocket PCs to aid those walking the fields and wooded areas in search of Columbia items.

XMap 4.0 and DeLorme Data was applied by NASA in the recovery effort to:

  • Navigate and route shuttle debris searchers to specific locations
  • Help helicopters course correct in high winds and at low altitudes
  • Utilize the easy-to-use annotation features to keep a record of the search area
  • Apply search & rescue ICS Map Symbology to maps of debris field
  • Grid the entire field of search - areas where searches are complete are colored in - areas that require deeper investigation are shaded another color
  • Import GPS log files from walking units and helicopter units that describe paths taken by searchers and replay log files against satellite imagery back at headquarters
  • Compare search area views of satellite imagery and road network data using the side-by-side Split Screen View
  • Import and apply database files to map locations
  • Log GPS derived coordinates for locations of actual debris finds
  • Attach picture files and text documents of actual finds to digital maps

DeLorme has dedicated staff for special data cutting, technical support and other requirements to meet the needs of NASA and the other agencies involved in the debris search. "NASA's initial response to XMap 4.0 as a search and rescue tool was overwhelmingly positive. All of the folks at DeLorme wanted to lend a hand in any way possible to what must be a painstaking effort. We're gratified that our products are able to provide key support to the recovery effort." said Ives. "All of our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of the Space Shuttle Columbia crew. Hopefully, in some small way, we helped to get the Shuttle program back to launch mode just a little bit quicker."