KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — Space shuttle Endeavour's powerful radar detected an intentional spill of oil and algae from 135 miles up Thursday, discerning black streaks that looked like an armada off the coast of Denmark.
German scientists dumped more than 100 gallons of diesel oil and algae products into the sea just before Endeavour soared overhead to see if the radar could distinguish between the two substances.
The early results indicated that it could.
Researchers applauded when they saw the radar images. They thought they could discern the two oil slicks from the five patches of algae but wanted to analyze the images further to make sure, said Franz-Peter Spaunhorst, a spokesman for the German space agency, which helped coordinate the experiment.
Endeavour's six tiny steering jets had shut down Wednesday because of a failed temperature sensor, preventing the radar instruments from being aimed properly and forcing some targets to be scrapped. NASA put together a computer program to bypass the sensor and restore use of the jets, but not in time for the spill.
To save the experiment, astronaut Daniel Bursch took manual control of the jets and accurately pointed the radar at the 106 gallons of diesel oil and 26 gallons of algae byproducts.
As promised, two oil-recovery ships quickly cleaned up the mess. Environmentalists on shore watched on TV monitors to make sure no wildlife was harmed.
If the radar can distinguish between oil spills and the sheen naturally produced by fish and plankton, the next step would be to put it aboard a satellite. Scientists say such a satellite could allow oil spills to be detected and cleaned up more quickly.
NASA added an 11th day to the mission to allow for more radar observations. Endeavour is now due back Tuesday.