"Congo," the most popular movie in America this week, depicts futuristic remote-sensing technology and satellite communication.
In real-life, scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory have used imaging radar flying aboard the space shuttle to study the habitat of the mountain gorillas of Central Africa -- the same area where "Congo" takes place.
"The Virunga volcano chain in Rwanda, the area that's also depicted in the film, is ideally suited for study by radar because the mountains are perennially covered by clouds and the radar is able to see through clouds," said Dr. Diane Evans, the radar project scientist at JPL.
The data were taken by the Spaceborne Imaging Radar C/X-band Synthetic Aperture Radar (SIR-C/X-SAR), part of NASA's Space Radar Laboratory which flew onboard the space shuttle Endeavour in April and October 1994.
"We had actually targeted this area for study because it's also an active volcano area -- another point which is made in the movie -- and we are involved in studying several volcanoes around the world that are potential threats to the local populations," Evans said.
Evans and her team have provided the radar data to scientists at the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund in London and Rutgers University in New Jersey. Those researchers have constructed a map of the gorilla habitat using the JPL radar data and provided the map to the producers of "Congo" for use in the movie.
"When the book 'Congo' was written in the early 1980s, the technology seemed very futuristic, but here we are in 1995 and this technology has become a reality," Evans said.
The study of the gorilla habitat is just one of several experiments conducted by SIR-C/X-SAR. Scientists are continuing to analyze data from several hundred sites around the globe which they hope will aid them in their studies of Earth's changing environment.
SIR-C/X-SAR is a joint mission of NASA and the German and Italian space agencies. JPL manages the SIR-C portion of the mission for NASA's Office of Mission to Planet Earth.
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