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Tom SeverNASA archaeologist Tom Sever explores the Guatemalan jungle, which hides the ruins of one of the world's oldest and most mysterious civilizations--the Maya. Sever and his partners, archaeologist William Saturno of the University of New Hampshire in Durham, and researcher Daniel Irwin of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., are using advanced imaging technology developed for the space program to uncover the ruins.
High-resolution satellite imaging, which detects variations in the color of plant life around the ruins, has enabled the researchers to pinpoint the sites of several Mayan settlements from space--before taking a single step into the jungle. The research, primarily conducted at the National Space Science and Technology Center in Huntsville and the University of New Hampshire, is made possible by a partnership between NASA and the Guatemalan Institute of Anthropology and History.
IKONOS view of a bajo
A high-resolution, false-color image taken by the commercial Earth-observation satellite IKONOS shows a Guatemalan "bajo," or a broad lowland area that is often partially submerged during the rainy season. The yellowish areas, which denote discolorations of the dense forest canopy, also pinpoint ancient Mayan building sites.
TikalIn a side-by-side comparison, space-based images captured by two commercial Earth-observation satellites--the Landsat TM, left, and the IKONOS--focus on the ancient ruins of Tikal, a Mayan city deep in the Guatemalan rain forest. The Landsat imaging system has a nominal resolution of 30 meters, while the IKONOS can capture a nominal resolution as close as 1 meter, a scale at which individual pyramids, pathways and small structures become apparent. Both use false-color imaging--depicting subjects in colors that differ from human perception--to help NASA and university scientists study patterns of jungle growth and floral discoloration that is enabling discovery of Maya ruins lost for more than 1,000 years.
Ever-improving optics, imaging and satellite technologies play a key role in enabling scientists to conduct increasingly sophisticated Earth science activities around the world.