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NASA's Space Place

Protecting the Forest

Katie McKissick
National Aeronautics and Space Administration

When you think about NASA, you probably picture outer space, comets, and galaxies. But there is also much to explore on our home planet Earth. We still have a lot to learn about the weather, the water cycle, Earth’s interior, and our planet’s many ecosystems.

And NASA doesn’t only research big systems like the atmosphere; it also looks at much smaller things like individual trees. In fact, NASA is using new technology to help protect forests from pesky bugs.

In the northeastern United States, millions of pine and ash trees are in danger because of two small insects, the southern pine beetle and the emerald ash borer. They burrow into trees and kill them. Technology from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, will help the U.S. Forest Service understand how much these bugs are hurting trees. Then researchers can make decisions to save as many trees as possible.

They use a machine called G-LiHT (pronounced gee-light). G-LiHT stands for “Goddard’s LiDAR, Hyperspectral, and Thermal Imager.” It uses lasers and special cameras to see details in big ecosystems like forests. To get measurements, they put this device in an airplane and fly it over a large area. It sits on the floor over a window and looks down at the ground while it gathers information.

This machine flew over forests in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, and Rhode Island this summer. It collected information about forests and how these insects are affecting them. It helped build 3-D images of each tree in the forest so scientists have detailed maps.

G-LiHT can see slight changes in the colors of leaves, which can show if trees are sick. This technology can even measure how much heat is coming off each tree. This is important since trees get a little warmer when insects damage them.

These insects are killing trees quickly, so researchers need to work fast. G-LiHT is great because it gathers data on large forests rapidly. Making detailed maps of forests without machines like G-LiHT takes years. The more information we have now, the better we can save our trees from pests like the southern pine beetle and the emerald ash borer. After all, healthy forests are important for a healthy planet.

Did you know we can see trees from space? Read about how two satellites can tell the difference between a pine tree and a maple tree at NASA Space Place: http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/trees-from-space.

G-LiHT sits inside the airplane’s cockpit, over an open camera port that allows it to look down from about 1,000 feet high. Credits: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center


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