Earth Observing-1: Ten Years of Innovation

By Holli Riebeek Design by Robert Simmon November 22, 2010

Steep cliffs surround the hot, brown valley that holds Khirbat en-Nahas, one of the largest copper mining and smelting sites of the ancient world. The desolate valley in Jordan is not the cradle you would expect to nurture a civilization, but archeologists Stephen Savage and Tom Levy think it may be the site of an early organized state.

“Copper mining and smelting is a hallmark of early state-level society in the eastern Mediterranean,” says Savage, a researcher from Arizona State University. His team is uncovering evidence for sophisticated economic and political activity in the valley about 3,000 years ago.

Photograph of excavation in the slag heaps of Khirbat en-Nahas, Jordan.

A slag mound at Khirbat en-Nahas provides evidence for organized, large-scale copper mining and smelting in the Jordanian desert about 3,000 years ago. The copper slag is piled in black layers under a building some 100 years newer than the heap. (Photograph ©2008 Thomas Levy, UC San Diego.)

Savage has never been to Khirbat en-Nahas, but he is revealing things about the site no archeologist has been able to see before. Instead of spending sweltering days in the desert, Savage logs in to a website, clicks on a map to select a location, and clicks “submit”. With that, he has requested that NASA’s Earth Observing-1 (EO-1) satellite point its instruments at his site the next time it flies over.

Satellite image of Khirbat en-Nahas, Jordan.

Dark gray piles of slag define ancient copper mining and smelting sites at Khirbat en-Nahas, in the desert between the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba. The square feature on the north side of the site is an Iron Age fortress. (NASA image by Robert Simmon, using Advanced Land Imager data.)

This type of user-driven experience was not part of the initial plans for EO-1, but it is an example of the spirit of exploration and experimentation that has characterized the mission.

Scheduled to fly for a year, designed to last a year and a half, EO-1 celebrates its tenth anniversary on November 21, 2010. During its decade in space, the satellite has accomplished far more than anyone dreamed.

Photograph of the launch of Earth Observing-1.

On November 21, 2000, the Earth Observing-1 satellite launched on a Delta II rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. (Photograph courtesy ATK.)

“Earth-Observing-1 has had three missions,” says mission manager Dan Mandl of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC). Its original mission was to test new technologies, a mission completed in the first year. Its second mission was to provide images and data. Its third mission was to test new cost-saving software that operates the satellite semi-autonomously and allows users to target the sensors.

All of the missions come down to one thing: “We’re the satellite people can try things on.” Mandl calls EO-1 NASA’s on-orbit test bed, and the name rings true.

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