SOLDOTNA - The U2, a high-altitude spy plane made famous when one was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960, will conduct reconnaissance over Nikiski late this summer.
Rest easy, it isn't the CIA at the controls this time. It's NASA. And instead of prowling for Communist missile sites, the mission is to track spruce bark beetles.
Hyperspectral cameras aboard the plane, which see on ultraviolet and infrared wave lengths beyond what the eye can see, will produce images of a 60-square-mile swath of mixed birch and spruce forest just north of Kenai.
The hope is that infrared energy captured on film will allow experts not only to discern dead and live forest but to actually pick out stands that are in danger.
It's a $271,000 experiment, one of eight in Alaska funded by a special $3.5 million congressionally mandated NASA grant.
The old spy plane, flying at 30,000 feet after taking off from Anchorage, will shoot pictures with a relatively blurry 10-meter resolution. That means a single point of color on a photo can discern something the size of an individual rooftop.
The test also will involve images taken by a passing satellite. The satellite camera has a 1-meter resolution, which can single out individual trees, but it can't see ultraviolet or infrared light.
The swarming beetles can mow through stretches of timber so fast that it has been tough for mappers to keep up with them, he said Marvin Rude, head of mapping for the Kenai Peninsula's spruce bark beetle mitigation project.
Entomologists say the infestation, which has wracked 1.4 million acres of spruce forest on the Kenai Peninsula, appears to be winding down because the bugs' prime targets, old growth spruce trees, are mostly dead.
But Rude said people are reporting that the burrowing insects are attacking smaller and smaller trees, down to 2 and 3 inches in diameter.
The insects' legacy, miles of standing dead timber and its associated wildfire risk, will be around for years to come, Rude said.
Spying on spruce bark beetles will be just one application of NASA's highflying powers of observation in Alaska.
The largest of the eight projects to be funded through the grant is a $1.2 million effort to detect high-seas driftnets, according to the office of Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer, which managed the grant process.
Starting in September, various types of imaging equipment will be used to ferret out lost or discarded driftnets that can stretch up to 35 miles, snaring all kinds of marine species, said Paula Scavera, a special assistant to Ulmer.
Also funded by the grant will be vegetation mapping of more than 11,000 square miles and 15 villages in the Tanana Valley. Data from that mapping is to be used to identify potential wildfire risks.
The grant also funds the mapping of commercial kelp beds in Southeast Alaska, a high-altitude review of land formations to scope possible untapped placer gold mining reserves in Northwest Alaska, a survey of Pacific walruses, the creation of an earth science alliance to teach about global climate change, and creation of three-dimensional images of 11 mountain passes to improve aviation safety.
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