Thursday, February 26, 2009

NASA helps with clues in De Jesus abduction

When law officers investigating the abduction of a Pearland woman turned to NASA for help in improving images captured by a fast-food restaurant’s security camera, they tapped into expertise the space agency has developed over decades of spotting potentially deadly flaws in space vehicles.
Brazoria County Sheriff’s Capt. Chris Kincheloe expressed optimism the enhancements of photos taken by a camera at a

Whataburger at 7229 W. Belfort may prove pivotal in identifying a man driving Susana De Jesus’ 2008 Cadillac after her Feb. 2 abduction from the parking lot of a Pearland-area clothing store.
The photos show a black or Hispanic man wearing a red T-shirt with writing on the back. The awkward movement of the man’s gloved hands in the security tape led authorities to believe he might have a distinctive tattoo he was attempting to conceal.

De Jesus, 37, was not visible in the car.
Tracy Calhoun of NASA’s Image Science and Analysis Laboratory at Johnson Space Center said her department was created after the 1986 explosion of space shuttle Challenger. The laboratory is charged with scrutinizing astronauts’ photos of space vehicles for evidence they have been damaged.

“When we find anything that looks abnormal, we apply skills and laboratory tools to extract as much information as we can,” she said. “We look at lengths and depths. If something is moving, we try to extract the velocity.”
The laboratory, which works extensively with the international space station, shuttle program and Constellation project to return astronauts to the moon, gained added impetus after space shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entry in February 2003.

That vehicle and its crew perished when protective heat tiles were damaged by insulation that broke free from the craft on takeoff.
In the past 15 to 20 years, Calhoun said, the laboratory has assisted law enforcement agencies in enhancing images gathered in about 50 investigations. One one occasion, they clarified the image of a bloody fingerprint found on a blanket. In another, they reassembled snippets of a passing auto — captured by a camera positioned in a narrow space between buildings — into a comprehensive photo of the suspect vehicle.

The NASA lab entered the De Jesus case at the request of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which is assisting the Brazoria County Sheriff’s Department in its investigation.
Tapes from surveillance cameras such as the one at Whataburger often don’t give laboratory staff much to work with.

“They have a low frame rate and low resolution,” Calhoun said. “So what we do is apply programs in the laboratory. Sometimes we go to Photoshop. We use software to bring out the details if there’s poor exposures and the images initially look dark. We also do sharpening if there’s a little fuzz. ... We use pretty common tools, but we have very skilled people.”

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