Satellites Are Taking Data-Based Images of the Earth and the Colors Are Spectacular—See Them Here

Experience Earth art as you’ve never seen it before in a stunning new set of satellite images that depicts the globe’s landscape in otherworldly hues. Last month, the United States Geological Survey released the fifth installment of the “Earth as Art” series drawn from imagery taken by the Landsat satellite program.

Unlike traditional photographs, satellite images are based on data—readings of light, from the visible to the infrared—that can be interpreted in many different ways. By assigning colors—red, blue, or green—to the different bands of light on the spectrum and combining them, you get a color composite image that can be dramatically different from how the scene would appear to the naked eye. (Some of the “Earth as Art” images are digitally manipulated further to enhance color or detail.)

The resulting images look more like abstract art than recognizable landscapes of the planet we call home—a spectacular example of just how amazing it can be when art and science intersect. The newly released series contains 24 images taken by Landsat 8, which launched in 2013.

Landsat 1, originally named the Earth Resources Technology Satellite 1, was launched back in 1972. Two years later, a data management field office, the Earth Resources Observation and Science Center (or EROS), was founded in order to process the satellite imagery being beamed back down to earth. Today, Landsat 7 and Landsat 8 continue to orbit the planet, transmitting hundreds of images a day, each capturing a 115-mile square section of the earth’s surface.

The striking images possess an undeniable aesthetic quality totally independent of their scientific value. That fact was recognized by EROS staffers tasked with image calibration in the late 1990s, who started setting aside any examples that were particularly extraordinary.

“Every once in a while we’d see an image that was so amazing, so remarkable, that we started squirreling them away,” recalled EROS engineer Jon Christopherson, in a statement for the series’ fourth edition, released in 2016. “We wrote them to CDs back then, and it wasn’t long before we had a drawer full of spectacular images.”

Eventually, the only logical thing to do was to put them on display. The first set of images debuted in 2001, ahead of the 30 anniversary of the launch of Landsat 1. An exhibition, “Earth as Art 1,” was held at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, and stayed on view for three years between 2002 and 2005. Shows for the second and third editions followed, with the images entering the permanent collection of the library’s geography and map division.

Landsat 8, Serene Expressions. A serene gradient from red to smoky blue-gray seems to mask a chaotic scene underneath, expressing a wide range of emotion. Looking like a NASA closeup of Jupiter, this image reveals sediment in the Gulf of Mexico off the Louisiana coast. Image courtesy of US Geological Survey/NASA.

In addition to its artistic qualities, the Landsat image archive serves as a vital historical record of the changing face of our planet since 1972, clearly showing physical alterations to the earth’s landscape due to both natural and human causes. The images taken by the satellites in the program can be of immense educational value and have had practical applications in the fields of agriculture, cartography, forestry, geology, surveillance, and regional planning.

“In essence, this archive of Landsat imagery is the equivalent of having a periodically refreshed family photo album for the entire earth, ” said Ghassem R. Asrar, NASA associate administrator of the office of earth science, in a statement about the first “Earth as Art.”

The EROS team has gotten particularly creative in naming their selections over the years. “The titles of the images in this fifth edition of ‘Earth as Art’ speak to the powerfully artistic qualities of earth’s natural features when tinged with unnatural colors,” notes the introduction, citing as examples the images Fanciful FluorescenceLurking Madness, and Serene Expressions. “Art serves as a great partner in the communication of science, bringing emotion to the pursuit of understanding.”

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