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NASA images reflect Earth as art

They look like the work of abstract artists, but the images reflect our planet. View some of NASA’s “Earth as Art” images in an slide show.
/ Source: The Associated Press

They look like the work of abstract artists, but the images reflect reality - the rhythmic shapes of mountains, deserts, clouds, fjords, scattered cities and towns turned into brilliant patches of red, green and blue - flashed to earth from a satellite 440 miles in space. They’re also now on display in an exhibit that’s online and at the Library of Congress called “Earth as Art.”

THE 41 images are from among the 400,000 photos taken by Landsat-7 since it was launched in 1999. The Landsat-7 photos are mainly used by the U.S. Geological Survey to keep tabs on crops and minerals. Some have been used by scientists to locate promising spots to dig for dinosaur bones in the Gobi desert.

The Earth as Art exhibit uses images chosen for their aesthetic interest.

“Each of the 41 images ... has been selected for its artistic appeal rather than for its scientific significance,” said the library’s monthly Information Bulletin.


As with abstract paintings, any viewer can choose a meaning - no human artist has designed them.

To one librarian, a representation of the mud and salt marshes in Iran’s Dasht-e Kevir desert recalled the marbled end-papers in a rare book of the 1700s. What look from space like delicate ripples in a Namibian desert are in fact the world’s tallest sand dunes - about 980 feet high. A frozen-over reservoir near the city of Bratsk in southern Siberia seems to merit its nickname of “Dragon Lake.”

By coincidence, one picture taken in January 2001 shows an area around Basra, the great oil port where U.S. planes bombed Iraqi air defenses last Sunday.

“Now littered with minefields and gun emplacements, it is a staging area for military exercises,” says last year’s description by the USGS.


Landsat-7 covers the entire surface of the earth every 16 days. From more than 400,000 images it has made since it was launched in 1999, just one in 10,000 made the cut for display.

Jon Christopherson headed a three-man team at a data center of the USGS in Sioux Falls, S.D., that assesses the digital data coming in from the satellite. They translate them into color prints, using only red, green and blue and combinations. Some of those colors correspond to the objects’ actual appearance, others are assigned arbitrarily to represent data - such as levels of heat - not visible to the human eye.

“Every once in a while we’d get an image that just grabbed you by the eyeballs, and we’d put it aside in a drawer,” Christopherson said.

The exhibit came from that drawer. It has nothing to do with the military or scientific aspects of satellite monitoring.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has been launching Landsat satellites since 1972, and the exhibit celebrates the program’s 30th anniversary. In that period, governments and businesses have developed similar monitors for various uses, including disaster and relief appraisals, pollution assessment and forestry management.

The exhibit is online at

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