Sunday, September 13, 2015


Phytoplankton Bloom Off The Coast Of Argentina
Satellites have become integral to our daily lives, such things as telephone, television, internet, weather forecasts, gps tracking just to name a few.  And with the launching of the Hubble telescope we can now see millions of light years into the vastness of space.  And we can't overlook those scientific discoveries including rediscovering things long forgotten and/or overlooked.

Phytoplankton Blooms
It's kind of bizarre to think that some of the smallest living things on Earth can make a display that you can see from space. In August of 2012, NASA's Aqua satellite captured some remarkable images of a massive phytoplankton bloom surrounding Russia's Novaya Zemla island. These particular plankton contain plates of a calcium-containing mineral that give them a bright blue color, and when they gather in massive numbers they make an incredible visual image. Temperature and salinity conditions have to be absolutely right to trigger this phenomenon, so capturing it this clearly is pretty amazing [above image].

Hundreds Of Sunken Ships
Much of the ocean is resistant to satellite photography because we don't have cameras powerful enough to penetrate those depths from space. However, there are still amazing things to be seen in the shallows, such as the ghost fleet of Mallows Bay. At the start of World War I, the United States needed to quickly build transport vessels. In April of 1917, 1000 ships were ordered to be built. By the end of the war, the boats had become obsolete and eventually they were sunk to the bottom of the Potomac River at Mallows Bay. From space, the ship graveyard is a striking and amazing sight.

A Marijuana Farm
If you're doing something illegal, it used to be sufficient to put up a fence and keep prying eyes out. But when the eyes are in the sky, things change. Spotting marijuana growths from small planes has been common practice for quite a while. But the owners of a massive marijuana growing operation in Switzerland found that out the hard way in 2010 when Google Earth satellite images revealed their pot fields. Police in Zurich discovered the two-acre field by chance while looking up the address of area farmers, and quickly moved in for the bust. Sixteen people were arrested and over a ton of marijuana was impounded.

Kazakh Geoglyphs
The people of the ancient world did some things that still confound us today. One of the most perplexing is the practice of creating geoglyphs—massive drawings in the earth that are too large to be comprehended from the ground, but show up clear as day from high above. The Nazca lines of southern Peru are the most famous. In 2014 archaeologists happened across a completely new set of geoglyphs in Kazakhstan. The drawings, which depict a number of different geometric shapes, have yet to be explained.

A Hidden Rain Forest
It's well-known that the truly wild areas of the planet are dying at a rapid rate, but satellite imagery can often reveal hidden oases that mankind hasn't managed to ruin…yet. That happened in 2005, when scientists at the Royal Botanic Gardens were going over Google Earth images from Mozambique. At the top of Mount Mabu, isolated by steep slopes, was one of the largest untouched rain forests that scientists had ever seen. Villagers had used the site to hide from the civil war that rocked the nation, but aside from that it was on no map and not recognized by the government. Three years later, an expedition found previously undiscovered plants and animals there.

Lost Egyptian Pyramids
One of the most frustrating parts of the archaeologist's craft is having to guess about ancient civilizations buried beneath the surface. Egypt, with its constantly-shifting sands, is especially tough. Thankfully, satellites equipped with infrared cameras have changed the game completely. In a 2011 survey of the country, heat-sensing photography was used to reveal the shapes of seventeen lost pyramids, as well as thousands of other buildings buried beneath the desert.

A Methane Hot Spot
Satellites don't just take photos of things we can see with the naked eye. Their advanced sensors allow them to record wavelengths we can't perceive. That's how we found an enormous packet of the greenhouse gas methane hovering over the American southwest. The Four Corners area, where Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah meet, is a hotbed of natural gas extraction. Scientists believe that the methane was released as a side effect of that industry, and claim that it's equivalent to the entire greenhouse gas output of Sweden.

A Meteor Crater
One of the coolest things about satellite surveillance is that it allows us to see things that would be virtually invisible from the ground. Case in point: the crater from one of Earth's most recent meteor impacts, a scant 5,000 years ago. Measuring just 150 feet wide, this tiny hole in Egypt was first noticed in 2008. But it wasn't until a team analyzed Google Earth images in 2010 that they realized what makes it unusual. The site is what's known as a "rayed crater," featuring lines of lighter-colored rock emanating from the impact area. These craters are common on the Moon but typically eradicated by erosion on Earth, so it's an advantage to science to find a new one.

A New Species Of Hominid
One of the most fascinating discoveries in the history of paleontology—a completely new hominid species that fills in information about the evolution of Homo sapiens. In 2007, South African professor Lee Berger was using Google Earth to examine caves around the so-called "Cradle of Humanity" area of South Africa when he started to notice a pattern. Following it out, he marked 500 other sites that he thought had the potential to produce fossils. The next year, he started to explore them on foot, and one gave up an incredible find: the first bones of Australopithecus sediba, a species that some believe might be the missing link between man and ape.

A Mars Lander
Let's look away from Earth and cast our attention to our nearest planetary neighbor for a look at a mission gone wrong. In 2003, the European Space Agency launched a mission to Mars that involved landing an unmanned craft called the Beagle 2 to take samples and return data. Unfortunately, after launch the ESA lost contact with the Beagle and it vanished into space. A dozen years later, NASA staff operating the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's cameras spotted an anomaly on the planet's surface. Upon investigation, they realized they had found the long-missing Beagle 2. The craft's solar panels had failed to open, resulting in mission failure, but it's been sitting on Mars this whole time.


Ashantay said...

Very cool! NASA did so much wonderful work - our society would be much different without all the technology produced by that governmental agency. Cell phones, GPS, and satellites are just the tip of their practical iceberg. Thanks for the post!

Samantha Gentry said...

Ashantay: So many incredible things available to us these days. And the huge leaps in technology in the last 50 years is mind boggling. Right now, any one of us has more computing power with our personal computers (whether desktop or laptop) than NASA had available to them when man first stepped foot on the moon in 1969. Just that little fact is amazing.

On the list I posted, the one I found the most interesting was locating the pyramids that were completely buried in the sand.

Thanks for your comment.

stanalei said...

A bit late to the party with my comment, Samantha, but your topic fascinated me so much I had to save your link for a time I could come back and read it. Love this post and the cool things you pointed out. Google Earth keeps me entertained for hours!

Samantha Gentry said...

Stanalei: Glad you enjoyed it. Google Earth is fascinating. The amount of time it took the Google people to put all the geographic areas into their system is mind-boggling. Needless to say, I did a search for my own address and there it was, my house on my computer screen!

Thanks for your comment.