/>
X

Photos: Move over Google Earth, this 3D map shows our world in razor-sharp detail

Researchers have collected five years of imagery from a pair of satellites to create a 3D map of Earth that captures its mountains and valleys with unprecedented precision.
liam-tung.jpg
By Liam Tung, Contributor on
tandem-xworld3dmapa770x578.jpg
1 of 10 DLR

TanDEM-X and TerraSAR-X in formation flight

These incredibly accurate maps of Earth have been produced by twin satellites orbiting about 120 meters apart from each other and controlled with millimeter precision. Images are captured using Synthetic Aperture Radar SAR) to produce images of mountain peaks and valley floors with an accuracy of one meter.

The TanDEM-X and TerraSAR-X satellites are operated by the German Aerospace Center or DLR, or Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt.

Between 2010 and 2015, the satellites transmitted 500 terabytes of imaging data, which ballooned to 2.6 petabytes post-processing. This gigantic database is available for free to the scientific community.

tandem-xworld3dmapb770x433.jpg
2 of 10 DLR

Crater landscape of Nevada test site

The satellite-borne radar has scanned Earth's surface multiple times and the data has then been processed to create elevation models. The resulting maps consist of more than 450,000 individual models that help create a three-dimensional mosaic seen in this and following photos.

tandem-xworld3dmapc770x433.jpg
3 of 10 DLR

La Avenida de los Volcanes in Ecuador

Why does the world need such highly accurate 3D maps of Earth?

"Accurate topographical data is essential for all geoscientific applications," says Alberto Moreira, principal investigator of the TanDEM-X mission and director of the DLR Microwaves and Radar Institute.

The data could be useful for helping researchers solve numerous environmental challenges, from climate-change research to infrastructure planning for urban development and road construction. It no doubt could have commercial and defense applications, too. DLR's partner Airbus Defence and Space, is overseeing commercial access to the database.

tandem-xworld3dmapd770x433.jpg
4 of 10 DLR

Richat structure in Mauritania

Now that TanDEM-X scans of static topography have been completed, DLR has its eye on dynamic topography, which could provide useful data for monitoring the impact of global climate and environmental agreements.

The proposed Tandem-L mission aims to scan Earth's entire landmass every eight days to capture dynamic processes.

tandem-xworld3dmape770x433.jpg
5 of 10 DLR

Chuquicamata copper mine in Chile

The satellite images allow us to marvel at the human capacity for destruction and creation. That pock mark in the bottom-right corner is Chuquicamata, the world's largest open-cut copper mine, which is located in the heart of the Atacama desert.

Although Chuquicamata was built at the beginning of the 20th century, it remains the largest man-made hole on Earth, with depths varying between 600 meters and one kilometer. DLR has made close-ups of the mine available.

tandem-xworld3dmapf770x575.jpg
6 of 10 DLR

Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Texas, USA

The tiny branches of the Palo Duro Canyon look impressive from a satellite. These markings were formed over millions of years by exposure to wind and water from the Red River in the southern Great Plains.

In 2014, DLR changed the flight formation of the twin satellites to boost elevation accuracy, which opened up new applications in the geosphere, cryosphere and hydrosphere, to begin exploring volcanic eruptions, melting ice, and the imaging of cities.

tandem-xworld3dmapg770x566.jpg
7 of 10 DLR

Appalachians, Pennsylvania

The maps are opening up new areas of research. However, data so far reveals a fairly bleak picture of glacial melting.

"We are now all the more fascinated by our initial scientific findings. Using the current elevation model, we have shown that in some regions of Earth, glaciers are losing up to 30 metres in thickness per year in the area of the glacier tongues," said Richard Bamler, director of DLR's Remote Sensing Technology Institute.

tandem-xworld3dmaph770x584.jpg
8 of 10 DLR

Cherokee National Forest, Tennessee

This is the Cherokee National Forest, Tennessee. It was the focus of a campaign to enact the Tennessee Wilderness Act, which aimed to boost the forest's protected areas significantly.

One of the key uses of the mapping data will be to monitor the health of forests, not just in the US, but in less well-regulated areas of the world. Scientists can use the data to observe systematic deforestation or illegal felling of woodland areas.

tandem-xworld3dmapi770x597.jpg
9 of 10 DLR

Paris

Tomographic imaging of cities is one new area of mapping enabled by these satellites. The TanDEM-X scanned approximately 150 million square kilometers of land surface from space using radar sensors.

tandem-xworld3dmapj770x608.jpg
10 of 10 DLR

London

A key area of interest for scientists is monitoring the surface of glacier melts. This is one reason some are keen on the Tandem-L project, which will allow observation during summer of melting in weekly cycles.

Related Galleries

Cybersecurity flaws, customer experiences, smartphone losses, and more: ZDNet's research roundup
shutterstock-1024665187.jpg

Related Galleries

Cybersecurity flaws, customer experiences, smartphone losses, and more: ZDNet's research roundup

8 Photos
Inside a fake $20 '16TB external M.2 SSD'
Full of promises!

Related Galleries

Inside a fake $20 '16TB external M.2 SSD'

8 Photos
Hybrid working, touchscreen MacBook hopes, cybersecurity concerns, and more: ZDNet's tech research roundup
Asian woman working at a desk in front of a computer and calculator

Related Galleries

Hybrid working, touchscreen MacBook hopes, cybersecurity concerns, and more: ZDNet's tech research roundup

8 Photos
Developer trends, zero-day risks, 5G speeds, and more: Tech research roundup
Person seated at a booth in a cafe looks at their phone and laptop.

Related Galleries

Developer trends, zero-day risks, 5G speeds, and more: Tech research roundup

10 Photos
Drive Electric Day: A dizzying array of EVs in sunny Florida
ca3b4019-26c5-4ce0-a844-5aac39e2c34b.jpg

Related Galleries

Drive Electric Day: A dizzying array of EVs in sunny Florida

16 Photos
Incipio, Kate Spade, and Coach cases for Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra: hands-on
s22-ultra-incipio-coach-cases-2.jpg

Related Galleries

Incipio, Kate Spade, and Coach cases for Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra: hands-on

15 Photos
Casetify Impact Crush Galaxy S22 Ultra case hands-on: in pictures
casetify-s22-ultra-3.jpg

Related Galleries

Casetify Impact Crush Galaxy S22 Ultra case hands-on: in pictures

10 Photos