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ASPECT Helps out in Hurricane Zone

Los Alamos toxin-detection equipment on plane bound for hurricane zoneASPECT

Toxin-detecting tools and Los Alamos expertise are heading into harm’s way to protect others, as the joint Los Alamos National Laboratory/U.S. Environmental Protection Agency airplane, ASPECT, once again heads for a zone of need: The Gulf Coast areas under threat of Hurricane Rita.

The plane is moving to the San Antonio, Texas area to prepare for on-scene analyses of chemical tanks, pipelines and facilities that may be damaged in the hurricane’s wind and flooding.

ASPECT, or “Airborne Spectral Photometric Collection Technology,” is supported by scientists from Chemistry ( C ) Division and the Center for Homeland Security (CHS), and it is operated by and for the EPA. The specially equipped aircraft is able to determine whether any airborne chemical hazards are present in areas of overturned tanks, leaking pipes or storm-damaged facilities.

The plane, a twin-engine Aerocommander 680 aircraft based in the Dallas, Texas vicinity, is equipped with a multi-spectral infrared (IR) mapping system and a Fourier Transform Infrared (FT-IR) spectrometer package called ASPECT. This airborne sensor is the only “stand-off infrared” detection tool devoted to emergency domestic response applications. The technology provides first responders with critical information regarding the size, shape, composition and concentration of gas clouds that can be invisible to the naked eye, but harmful or lethal to citizens or first responders in their path.

In addition, Lab scientists in the CHS provide "reachback" support – analysis and discussion of and implications of data collected from the aircraft at the site. Los Alamos supports the development of unique computer pattern recognition tools used for chemical and radiological data analysis on the aircraft.

Said EPA Region 6 coordinator Mark Thomas, “We do three sets of data analysis to provide data for the public: one in the airplane for immediate results for the first responders, then a first review with a set process. Then there’s a final re-examination and external review, using visual inspection as a quality assurance requirement, to document the full process. Collectively, as a technical team, we fully stand behind what we're doing.”

The ASPECT plane and its gear provide a remote airborne detection system that provides information about exact locations of contamination and aid in avoidance of those hazardous areas for first responders. The airborne equipment can identify, map and provide global positioning system locations of the extent of a chemical hazard cloud, helping first responders and residents stay out of harm's way, especially when the hazards are invisible.

The ASPECT system uses three sensors: A Fourier Transform Infrared Spectrometer, to detect and locate chemical vapors. It can see through smoke and dust to get a measurement of the location and concentration of the vapor plume. A second sensor, a high-resolution Infrared Line Scanner, records an image of the ground below, as well as marking plume information.

The system then uses GPS mapping data and digital images of the site to create exact maps and digital data overlays of chemical plumes and low area locations where toxin-laden air may accumulate.

The ASPECT plane and equipment have been called into service nationwide more than 50 times, having flown during the Hurricane Katrina emergency, during the 2003 California fires, for chemical plant and rail-car accidents in a number of states, the space shuttle debris search and the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics.

By Nancy Ambrosiano
September 26, 2005



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