by John C. Stennis Space Center

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HANCOCK COUNTY, Miss. — While space technology was undergoing a spectacular birth during the 1950s and '60s, and visionaries were predicting the spread of human colonies into space, another kind of human colony was spreading rapidly — right here on Earth.

It was the dawn of the modern suburb, a time of post-war prosperity when housing developments popped up across the landscape like mushrooms after a rain.

A half-century later, scientists understand that many environmental problems go with this outward spread of communities, including polluted runoff water into streams and lakes and the destruction of wildlife habitats.

Space technology of the 1950s has grown along with our cities. Today, dozens of high-tech satellites are circling the Earth, gathering scientific data about the environment every day. This satellite data provides a unique "big picture" view of the effects of urban sprawl. But most city planners still don't use it.

Enter NASA's Earth Science Enterprise, or ESE. Why NASA? ESE is responsible for many of those satellites circling the earth, and they are used to fulfill NASA's mission to understand and protect our home planet. The information collected from satellites such as Landsat 7, Terra, Aqua and Jason-1 enable NASA scientists to make more accurate predictions of weather, climate, and natural hazards. Local resource managers and policy makers can use that information to make decisions about the futures of their communities.

NASA earth scientists at Stennis Space Center are managing a project, the Northeast Application of Useable Technology in Land Planning for Urban Sprawl, or NAUTILUS, with the Center for Land-use Education and Research at the University of Connecticut. The project is one of several Regional Earth Science Applications Centers (RESACs) managed by Stennis to optimize benefits from NASA's Earth Science investments.

"Land-use decisions are made locally, while satellite data has, until very recently, looked at the regional or global picture," said Chet Arnold, associate director of the Center for Land-use Education and Research. "Currently there's no good end-to-end system for getting useful satellite data on the impacts of urban sprawl into the hands of local decision makers."

The NAUTILUS team is working in test regions in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine and New Jersey to understand the information needs of public officials there and to summarize the satellite data in ways that meet those needs: color-coded maps, for example, or time-lapse animations. Sensors aboard satellites such as Landsat 7, the most recent of NASA's long-lived Landsat series, provide unique broad-area coverage that allows seasonal and long-term monitoring of important small-scale processes on a global scale.

The satellite record gives a compelling view of the past, but what about the future? After all, it's the future consequences of land use that planners must address.

One tool NAUTILUS researchers have created is like a computerized "crystal ball" — a decision-support software package that lets city planners see an imaginary future of their city, assuming that it grew according to current zoning patterns. They can view simple maps, color-coded for environmental impacts, or a 3-D map for a physical sense of their future city. More importantly, the tool lets planners make changes and view the likely outcome of different growth scenarios.

But satellite images are more than just pretty pictures. Satellite data can convey information about water-quality damage due to development, for example, or the decrease in animal habitat caused by the development of forested land. Information like this is crucial for making the tough decisions public officials face.

"The NAUTILUS Project is an excellent example of non-science users applying NASA science and technology to aid in important everyday decision-making," said NASA's Rodney McKellip, manager of the RESAC program at Stennis.

If the NAUTILUS RESAC project is successful, other cities will soon join those in the test regions using the "big picture" perspective of satellites to better understand the environmental impact of humanity's expanding colonies here on Earth. For more information about the NAUTILUS program, visit To learn more about the project's management at Stennis Space Center's Earth Science Applications Directorate, visit