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SCIENCE OBSERVER

An Alien Cityscape

Michael Szpir

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.

New York? New York?Click to Enlarge Image

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


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