An Alien Cityscape
Earthlings have become well acquainted with strange views of
planetary surfaces made by various spacecraft over the years. Even
to the casual observer these images are often recognizable as
otherworldly places—they just don't seem to fit into our
conceptual scheme of the landforms that ought to appear on our home
world. It may come as a surprise to some, then, to see that a
familiar landscape can become quite eerie when NASA takes a peek at it.
Consider the scene at right, which depicts a view looking north
over Manhattan Island. Central Park is evident as a green
rectangular patch near the top of the image; the Hudson River is
visible on the upper left, and the East River is on the upper right.
The city's skyscrapers give the landscape a lumpy appearance, but
the instrument's resolving power fails to distinguish individual
buildings. It hardly looks like Woody Allen's Manhattan at all.
The image was generated as part of a larger project—the
Shuttle Radar Topography Mission—which mapped 80 percent of
the earth's landmass during a flight of the Space Shuttle Endeavor
in February 2000. Mounds of topographic information were acquired
during the mission, comparable to the holdings of the Library of
Congress, and data processing won't be complete until March 2001.
Ultimately, the digital maps should have a variety of civil and
military applications—including land-use planning,
ground-proximity warning systems for aircraft, as well as model
terrains for flight simulators and weapons guidance systems.
For those who want to get out of the city, an animation of a flight
over upstate New York can be found on the Internet at: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/srtm/newyorkgallery.html—Michael Szpir