Virginia Norwood, ‘mother’ of satellite imaging systems, dies at 96

Virginia Norwood, an aerospace pioneer who invented the scanner used to map and study the Earth from space for more than 50 years, has died at her home in Topanga, California. She was 96 years old.

His death was announced by the United States Geological Survey, whose Landsat satellite program is based on his invention. Her daughter, Naomi Norwood, said her mother was found dead in her bed on the morning of March 27.

Landsat satellites, which accelerate 438 miles above the surface, orbit the earth every 99 minutes and have captured a complete image of the planet every 16 days since 1972. These images have provided powerful visual evidence of the climate change, deforestation and other changes affecting the planet. welfare.

Ms. Norwood, a physicist, was the person primarily responsible for designing and promoting the scanner that made the program possible. NASA dubbed her “the mother of Landsat”.

At the dawn of the era of space exploration in the 1950s and 1960s, she worked at Hughes Aircraft Company, developing instruments. Being part of a small group of women in a male-dominated industry, she stood out more for her insight.

“She said ‘I was kind of known as the person who could solve impossible problems,'” Naomi Norwood told NASA for a video on her website. “So people were bringing things to him, even bits and pieces from other projects.”

In the late 1960s, after NASA lunar missions returned spectacular images of Earth, the director of the Geological Survey thought that photographs of the planet from space could help the agency manage resources terrestrial. The agency would partner with NASA, which would send satellites into space to take the photos.

Ms Norwood, who was part of an advanced design group in Hughes’ space and communications division, brought in scientists specializing in agriculture, meteorology, pollution and geology. She concluded that a scanner that recorded multiple light and energy spectra, like the one that had been used for local agricultural observations, could be modified for the planetary project the Geological Survey and NASA had in mind.

The Geological Survey and NASA planned to use a giant three-camera system designed by RCA, based on television tube technology, which had been used to map the moon. Most of NASA’s first Landsat satellite’s 4,000-pound payload was reserved for RCA equipment.

Ms Norwood and Hughes were told their Multispectral Scanner System, or MSS, could be included if it weighed no more than 100 pounds.

Ms Norwood had to scale down her scanner to register only four energy bands in the electromagnetic spectrum instead of seven as she had expected. The scanner also had to be high-precision. In its first design, each pixel represented 80 meters.

The device had a 9 x 13 inch mirror that rattled loudly back and forth in the scanner 13 times per second. Geological Survey and NASA scientists were skeptical.

A senior Hughes engineer took the device out on a truck and drove around California to test it and convince skeptics that it would work. He did – spectacularly. Ms Norwood hung one of the images, of Yosemite National Park’s Half Dome, on the wall of her home for the rest of her life.

The first Landsat was launched into space on July 23, 1972. Two days later, the scanner returned the first images, of the Ouachita Mountains in Oklahoma; they were amazing. According to a 2021 article in MIT Technology Review, a geologist got torn. Another, who had been skeptical about the scanner, said: “I was so wrong about it. I’m not going to eat crow. Not big enough. I’m going to eat crow.

The RCA system was meant to be the primary recording instrument onboard the satellite, and the MSS a secondary experience.

“But once we looked at the data, roles changed,” Landsat 1 project scientist Stan Freden said in a NASA report.

The MSS turned out not only better, but also more reliable. Two weeks after liftoff, power surges in the RCA camera-based system endangered the satellite and the camera had to be shut down.

Over the next 50 years, new Landsat satellites replaced the previous ones. Ms. Norwood oversaw the development of Landsat 2, 3, 4 and 5. Currently, Landsat 8 and 9 are in orbit around the earth, and NASA plans to launch Landsat 10 in 2030. Each generation satellite has added more capabilities imaging but still based on Ms. Norwood’s original concept.

The Landsat program has mapped changes to the planet caused by climate change and human actions. They include the near disappearance of the Aral Sea between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the shrinking of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, the changing shape of the Mississippi River Delta, and increasing deforestation and agricultural use. land in Turkey and Brazil.‌‌

Virginia Tower was born on January 8, 1927 in Fort Totten, NY, to John Vogler and Eleanore (Monroe) Tower. Mrs. Tower was a housewife and also a linguist who spoke nine languages. Mr. Tower was a decorated Army colonel with a master’s degree in physics who eventually taught at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University).

He encouraged Virginia to study math and physics and made her first slide rule with her when she was 9 years old. As a military family, they moved often, living in Panama, Oklahoma and Bermuda, among other places. Virginia attended five different high schools before graduating as a salutatorian from Germantown High School in Philadelphia.

Her school guidance counselor suggested she become a librarian, advice she ignored, instead going to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she was one of a dozen women in her entering class.

A day after graduating in 1947, she married Lawrence Norwood, a graduate student who had been her calculus teacher during her third semester. They had three children: Naomi, David and Peter. The marriage ended in divorce and Mrs Norwood married Maurice Schaeffer, who died in 2010. She is survived by Naomi and Peter; one sister, Barbara; five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

After graduating, Ms Norwood came up against the prejudice that then permeated society, according to the MIT and NASA papers. During an interview at Sikorsky Aircraft, she asked for a salary corresponding to the lowest rank in the civil service, but was told that the company would never pay a woman that much.

She withdrew her application to a food lab after she was asked to promise not to get pregnant.

She had three interviews at Remington, the arms manufacturer, in which she discussed how a staff mathematician could improve company operations. The hiring manager called to say his idea was brilliant, but the company was going to hire a man instead.

Desperate, she took a job selling women’s blouses at a department store in New Haven, Connecticut.

Eventually, she and her husband were hired by the US Army Signal Corps Laboratories at Fort Monmouth, NJ. She worked in the weather radar division, where she designed a radar reflector for weather balloons that could detect previously untraceable winds at 100,000 feet.

She then joined an antenna group, working on antennas using microwaves and designed one that remains classified. In 1953, she and her husband moved to California and she went to work at Sylvania Electronic Defense Labs in Mountain View, where she established the company’s first antenna lab.

A year later, the couple moved to Los Angeles, where she was hired by the research and development division of Hughes Aircraft, becoming the only woman among the division’s 2,700 employees. In 1957, promoted to head of the company’s missile laboratory microwave group, she became Hughes’ first woman to join the technical staff.

A man, confronted with Ms Norwood as his boss, quit saying he didn’t want to work for a woman, according to the MIT Technology Review article. He returned several years later to ask for a job, but she refused.

In her new role, Ms. Norwood designed the transmitter and receiver for the world’s first communications satellite. A few years later, NASA sent a lander called Surveyor to the Moon to scout possible landing spots for astronauts. Ms. Norwood’s team designed the equipment used by the lander to communicate with ground control.

In the 2020 article on the NASA website calling her the “mother” of Landsat, Ms Norwood said she was comfortable with the moniker.

“Yeah, I like it, and it’s appropriate,” she said. “I created it, I brought it into the world and I fought for it.”

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