Down to Earth views of the home world
ATLANTA (CNN) -- Using high-resolution satellite images and powerful computer technology, NASA scientists have created visually stunning simulated dives that begin high above the atmosphere, zoom in on selected U.S. cities, and screech to a halt shortly before reaching the ground.
Virtual riders start the trip from orbit, looking down on vast expanses of indistinguishable green woodlands or brown desert. The camera then rushes down at incredible speeds, bringing into view the outlines of metropolises such as Atlanta, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The views conclude with familiar landmarks coming into sharp focus -- like the golden state capitol dome in Atlanta, Georgia, and the Hollywood sign in California. Even individual cars and trees are distinguishable.
Researchers at the Goddard Space Flight Center pieced together the seamless virtual roller coaster rides with images and data from a fleet of government and private satellites, most designed to study widespread physical changes on the Earth and in the atmosphere.
"If you don't think you have changed over time, look at your family photo album and see how much have changed over the past 25 years. The same is true of the Earth," said Darrell Williams, project scientist with one of the NASA satellites.
The more than 1,600-kilometer long journey begins with Terra, which is equipped with a camera with a resolution of 8,000 meters. Next the giant zoom-in jumps to Landsat 7, which can resolve features 15 meters across. The trip ends with images from the remarkable commercial satellite Ikonos, which can discern details as small as one meter across.
Goddard, based in Greenbelt, Maryland, released the movies to commemorate Earth Day, which takes place on April 22.
"We as a species are the only creatures on this planet that have the ability to really change how the Earth behaves. Being able to observe these kinds of things from space, I hope particularly as Earth Day approaches, will give people an awareness that we really do affect the Earth's ability to support life," said NASA scientist Gene Feldman.
NASA satellites, some in orbit for decades, have documented the rapid shrinking of Lake Chad, the growth of the Sahara Desert, the deadly effects of oil spills and other major environmental changes.
For information about Earth Day activities taking place on the ground in the cities mentioned above or in other cities around the world, check out the Web site of the Earth Day Network, http://www.earthday.net.
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