Scientists from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory have provided imaging radar data of the Rwandan jungle to researchers who are helping to protect the endangered mountain gorillas of Central Africa.

The data were taken by the Spaceborne Imaging Radar C/X-band Synthetic Aperture Radar (SIR-C/X-SAR) which flew recently as part of NASA's Space Radar Laboratory onboard the space shuttle Endeavour.

Researchers at Rutgers University' Center for Remote Sensing and Spatial Analysis at Cook College will use the radar data as well as data gathered by Rwandan trackers using sophisticated Global Positioning System (GPS) units that pinpoint ground locations using information from satellites to compile a computer-based Geographic Information System on the gorillas and their habitat.

Only an estimated 600 to 650 mountain gorillas survive, with about half living in the Virunga Volcano chain that straddles the borders of Rwanda, Zaire and Uganda, according to Rutgers anthropology professor H. Dieter Steklis, executive director of the Denver- and London-based Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.

The fund carries on the pioneering work of Fossey, the famed researcher who established the Karisoke Research Center in Rwanda's Parc National des Volcans (Volcano National Park) in 1967.

Fossey's efforts to study and protect the apes were depicted in the movie, "Gorillas in the Mist."

SIR-C/X-SAR, the only three-frequency radar instrument to fly directly over Central Africa, provides the researchers with a completely new way of studying the region. "Weather conditions don't affect imaging with radar. It works in sunny or cloudy weather, and even rain doesn't hinder its operation. Day or night, we can obtain pictures," said Scott Madry, associate director of CRSSA who asked JPL to image the gorilla habitat. "It's always cloudy and misty over the volcanoes, so regular aerial photography will not work.

"Even if it could, the fighting between the warring Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups would make it unsafe to fly over the area. Also, the Virunga chain stretches into three countries. You couldn't fly over three countries without getting permission. We could not hope to accomplish this mapping without the assistance of NASA and JPL," Madry added.

Imaging the gorilla habitat is just one of several experiments that were conducted by SIR-C/X-SAR during its 10-day mission in April. 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 will fly again on Endeavor next August.

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. X-SAR was developed by Dornier and Alenia Spazio companies for the Deutsche Agentur fuer Raumfahrtangelegenheiten (DARA), and the Agenzia Spaziale Italiana (ASI). Deutsche Forschungsanstalt fuer Luft und Raumfahrt e.v. (DLR) is the major partner in science, mission operations and data processing of X-SAR.

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