NASA's 6,000-Mile Panorama: A Sliver of Earth in a Billion Pixels

NASA celebrates the launch of their latest Landsat satellite with a massive panorama of Earth.


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NASA's Landsat mission has been utilizing satellites to capture images of the planet for more than 40 years, but their gear has been in sore need of an upgrade. To remedy the situation, NASA recently kicked off the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM), putting a new satellite in space on February 11th.

After calibrating the new imager over the last couple months, NASA marked the satellite's ascent to its target altitude with some promotional imagery. NASA used the satellite's Operational Land Imager (OLI)—the special camera designed to capture high-resolution shots of the planet across the light spectrum—to record a 6,000-mile-long panorama of a 120-mile-wide sliver of Earth, an expanse stretching from Russia, to Saudi Arabia, to South Africa.

To check out the "Long Swath" panorama for yourself, you actually have a couple of different options. If you're the passive sort, you can watch a video of the serene 15-minute fly-by online. You can also check out the massive 19.06 gigapixel panorama hosted by Gigapan—that's 19 billion pixels, though there's only a meager 1.5 gigapixels of actual image in a sea of black. If you've got a hankering to do some exploring offline, you can even download the full Google Earth (.KML) file.


This ugly-as-sin camera is how the satellite sees the world, capturing shots at a resolution of 30 meters per pixel. (Photo: NASA)

The panorama is stitched together from 56 individual scenes taken with the new OLI. The camera's pushbroom sensor moves across the scene much the way that a document scanner would, except this particular scanner can capture visible light and infrared wavelengths at a resolution of approximately 30 meters per pixel from 438 miles above the planet. The OLI is a big improvement over previous imagers, recording 12-bit scenes as opposed to the 8-bit scenes recorded by the Landsat 7—similar to the quality gain of shooting in RAW instead of JPEG.


Here you can see the flight path shown in the "long swath" panorama superimposed on a globe. (Photo: NASA)

Believe it or not, the LDCM is actually considered a "medium resolution" device, as higher resolution sensors would choke our current communications capabilities with a constant stream of data. When you consider that the LDCM orbits the planet in about 90 minutes, returning to the same position over Earth about once every 16 days, it's obvious that a few extra hard drives wouldn't do the trick.


Landsat 8's imager captures shots one row at a time—much like your typical scanner—moving row by row as the satellite moves across the face of the planet. (Credit: NASA)

The LDCM satellite will eventually take the name Landsat 8 and be utilized by the U.S. Geological Survey to record information about natural resources around the planet. Landsat's primary mission is to track changes to these resources over time, monitoring things like the drinking water supply, the development of agriculture worldwide, and ecological trends.

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