As police and FBI agents searched for a missing 11-year-old girl in Florida yesterday, NASA scientists were lending a hand with technology they developed to steady jittery images of storms on the surface of the sun.
Carlie Brucia of Sarasota disappeared Sunday after running into a stranger from behind a carwash as she walked home from visiting a friend. Her encounter with the presumed kidnapper was captured by the carwash security camera.
The herky-jerky tape - widely broadcast over the past two days - shows a man in his 20s or 30s stopping the girl and leading her away.
Last night, police in Sarasota were questioning a 37-year-old man they described as a suspect in the case. They said Joseph P. Smith, who has a long arrest record, was arrested on unrelated charges after a phone tip, and his Buick Century was being searched for evidence that the girl might have been inside.
Earlier in the day, investigators shipped the videotape to NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., where experts worked to bring out more detail on the images. Police hope the enhanced prints will make it easier to identify the man by his facial features, tattoos on his forearms or a company label on his shirt.
After five hours of work with the videotape yesterday, David Hathaway, a solar physicist at Marshall and co-inventor of the video enhancement technology, said he had made "improvements" in the video and was preparing to send the results to the FBI in Florida.
He declined to discuss what new clues he might have extracted from the tape. "That's up to the FBI to show you what they'd like to show you," he said.
But Hathaway praised the unusually high quality of the video. "We're amazed it came from a carwash," he said. "This is great video compared to what we see from banks and jewelry stores. ... This was color, full-frame video."
"I feel good" about the results, Hathaway said. "But in all of these cases you always wish you could do more." Police could not say if the video enhancements were a factor in the arrest.
Hathaway and atmospheric scientist Paul Meyer developed the enhancement technology in 1996 after FBI agents came to them with video images of the terrorist bombing at the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta.
The two men are attached to the National Space Science and Technology Center at Marshall. They had developed ways to steady video images of the sun and of weather systems on Earth sent back by satellites.
But those problems mostly involved correcting for vertical and horizontal motions caused by random movement, or "wobble," of the satellites.
The Olympic bombing videos required the development of additional computer software to eliminate effects of camera rotation and telephoto zooming. When it was done, the FBI's forensic experts were able to glean useful details about the bomb.
The technology was dubbed VISAR, for Video Image Stabilization and Registration. It has since been licensed by NASA and commercialized by Intergraph Government Solutions. The Huntsville company provides video enhancement systems for law enforcement, the military and security services.
Hathaway and Meyer have lost count of the number of crimes they have been asked to help solve with VISAR. Hathaway figures it is in the dozens.
"I always delight in telling people I'm wanted by the FBI, and was once featured on America's Most Wanted," he said.
One of the cases was the abduction of Katie Poirier, a Moose Lake, Minn., convenience store clerk, in 1999.
Hathaway and Meyer were given a security video that bore a poor-quality image of the abductor. But they were able to stabilize, brighten and enhance the image well enough to reveal that the suspect was wearing a New York Yankees T-shirt with the number 23 on it.
The image was broadcast on local television, and a co-worker of the suspect identified the abductor based on that shirt. The tip led to a search of the suspect's residence, which produced human remains traced to Poirier. The accused, Donald Blom, was convicted in 2000 and sentenced to life without parole.
VISAR has also helped free innocent people caught up in crime investigations. In one case, enhanced imagery from a security camera revealed that the man who robbed a Las Vegas convenience store was 5 feet 8 inches tall. That was enough to free the 6-foot-1-inch man who had been convicted of the crime.
The VISAR technology works by first digitizing the analog images from video cameras, enabling them to be loaded into a computer.
On the computer monitor, the person or object in the taped scene can be stabilized. Vertical and horizontal movement, as well as the effects of zooming and rotation of the camera, can be steadied. That enables witnesses, police and sketch artists to get a better look at such details as faces, clothing and license plates.
Also, by taking a series of frames from a tape - all shot within a very short period of time and nearly identical - investigators can layer them together digitally.
That does two things. It enhances detail that may have been too faint or missing in some of the individual frames, a bit like allowing the human eye to adjust to the dark. It also reduces the random electronic "noise," or "snow," that might have obscured the real image.
Coupled with more conventional video processing techniques, the technology produces a picture that is steadier, brighter and clearer, with sharper edges.
Hathaway said the biggest problem with the Brucia videotape was that it was a time-lapse system. It captured only two frames per second instead of the 30 per second available on more conventional videos.
Nevertheless, it provided a total of 30 frames that contained images of the suspect.
Working with law enforcement to help solve such cases is "fascinating stuff," Hathaway said. "I think I'm doing a service to my fellow humans and to my country for paying their taxes and paying my salary."
Meyer said it gives him "a heartwarming feeling to know I am doing something for the family [of crime victims]. I am doing this as a kind of gift."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.