Sarah Parcak has a great job title: She’s a space archeologist.
That doesn’t mean she’s combing Mars looking for buried alien superstructures. In a new profile, Wired explains her method, which involves satellites:
Parcak gets most of her imagery from DigitalGlobe, a vendor of high resolution satellite images. She can zoom in on specific chunks of land, then process the images to examine portions of the electromagnetic spectrum the human eye can’t see. While humans process only visible light, much of Parcak’s work deals in the near infrared and short-wave infrared. Looking at this portion of the spectrum allows Parcak to tease out detail that would otherwise go unnoticed.
“An architectural structure buried underground can stunt the growth of the flora above it, creating a dead zone—invisible to the naked eye, but detectable in short wave infrared images—in the shape of the underlying infrastructure,” Wired explains.
Hence, she and her team can spot archeological sites. Many of them have been in Egypt, including a big find at Tanis—you know, the city Indiana Jones was hunting in Raiders of the Lost Ark. You can see Parcak in action in this Colbert interview (skip to 2:15 for the space science). She’s able to find an ancient amphitheater using satellite photos of a field taken outside of Rome. “We find things everywhere,” she told the host.
Her work earned her a $1 million TED prize last year. And now Wired reports what she’ll do with the money: She’s putting it toward developing an app that would allow me and you and other would-be armchair Indiana Joneses to help out. You see, there’s a lot of satellite imagery and archeological sites out there, but not that many space archeologists to examine it all.
It’s still a work in progress, but the idea is it would be like a game. The New York Times explains:
Under her plan to begin this summer, she said, anyone could sign in to take a simple tutorial and be sent a small series of random satellite images identified generally by location, but not detailed on a map, to guard the actual site.
The images, each representing about 50 square meters, would be preprocessed to make scanning easier. Any crowdsourced finds, including signs of looting, would be shared with experts and the local authorities for further exploration and protection.
If enough people flag an image, it goes to the professionals for a look. “With the right interface, the barrier to entry could be as low as looking at a Where’s Waldo book,” says Wired. Except, you know, astronaut Indiana Jones—a pretty straightforward sell.
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Photo via AP Images.