Man-made Structures Seen from Space

Today, my favorite source of friendly astronomy-news commentary, Phil Plait (BadAstronomy.com) published a post regarding a new picture taken by Soichi Noguchi, an astronaut on board the International Space Station, clearly showing the pyramids of Egypt from space. That means, of course, that the Great Wall of China is not the only man-made object that can be seen from space.

I agree with Phil about this conclusion. However, these questions of man-made objects seen in space is a long-time pet-peeve of mine, and I couldn’t just let this go.

There’s no doubt we can see man-made objects from space. Depending on your definition of space.

See, space is huge, HUGE, and the border between Earth’s atmosphere and Space is less clear-cut than many think. This renders the question itself – Are man-made objects visible from space? – moot. Is space 400km above the Earth, or is it 30,000km above the earth? Whether or not we can see man-made objects on the surface of the earth depends on how far away we are when we look.

Here vs. There

Case in point – the International Space Station is somewhere between 336 to 346 km above the surface of the Earth at any given moment. Some man-made communication satellites are about 30,000km above the equator. What’s visible from the space station might not be visible from our man-made communication satellites.

Notice the differences here: The ISS is proximately 400km above the Earth’s surface, and our communication satellites are around 30,000km above the Earth’s atmosphere. That’s almost 100 times farther away.

This means that the same area that we see from the International Space Station in this picture (taken by Soichi Noguchi):

Pyramids from the ISS (click for a bigger version)

Will be almost 100 times smaller in a picture taken from 30,000km altitude:


Pyramids from 30,000km

So that’s what the pyramids look like from space. Hrm. The.. the pyramids.. wait.. uh.. the pyramids? Where did they go?

As you can see, it’s very hard (if at all possible) to see the pyramids in the second teeny tiny picture. And yet, that’s their relative size from a 30,000km altitude – about 1% size of the original picture.

So Can We See the Pyramids From Space?

We can see the pyramids in space, when space is around 400km above the Earth. Actually, we might be able to see the pyramids from 30,000km if we have better resolution in the picture, but the farther out you go, the harder it is to make up items on the Earth’s surface. That includes the pyramids, and the wall of china, and the super-dome. You can see neither of those from the Moon.

The same can be said about moving closer to the Earth’s surface. The border between the Earth’s atmosphere and outer space isn’t clear cut at all. The earth’s atmosphere becomes thinner and thinner as you venture outwards, and it doesn’t just end in a clearly discernible line.

At around 175km above the earth’s surface is where shuttles returning to earth begin feeling a discernible effect from the atmosphere, so we often take that limit to be the “edge” between the Earth and outer space.

If you go to that height, though (half the height from the ISS to the surface of the Earth), you could see much more than just the pyramids.

And it is still Space.

The Farther Away, the Less You See

When you’re in Battery Park, you can see the Statue of Liberty. When you’re on top of the Empire State Building, you will likely need binoculars.

We all know this simple fact: It’s harder to make out objects the farther away you are from them. We don’t need to go to space to see this, it’s enough that we board a plane and fly above our city. When we are on the ground, we can make out people and buildings. When we are on the plane, we can only make out buildings. When the plane is very high up in the air we can only see clusters that we recognize as cities.

The same goes with space:

  • From the International Space Station, we can obviously see the pyramids. Does that mean the pyramids are visible from space?
  • From the distance of communication satellites, we probably can’t see the pyramids. Does that mean that the pyramids aren’t visible from space?
  • From the moon, it’s almost impossible to recognize any feature other than landmass on the surface of the Earth. Does that mean no man-made objects are visible from space?

It all depends on what you mean by “space”.

Here is a picture taken by the Apollo 8 astronauts, from the moon, of the Earth rise:

Apollo 8: Earth rise, Credit: NSSDC Photo Gallery Earth & Moon NASA

If you think you can make out any detail other than landmass (the wall of china? the pyramids? anything else?), then I’d love to get to know your optometrist. Is he taking new patients?

Conclusion

Space isn’t a finite point, it’s an unclear range that seems to start around 160km above the Earth (more or less) and ends … well… at the edges of the universe, some 46.5 billion light years away.

We can barely make out our own planet from the edge of our own solar system. Do you think we can see man-made structures from the center of our galaxy? Of course not. Does that mean they are not visible from space?

So, when I am asked this question – “Can we see the wall of china from space? Can we see the pyramids from space?” my answer is simple: Sure we can! It just depends how far out you go.

Smartassy, maybe, but more accurate.

Picture Credits

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9 comments
Bruce Atwood
Bruce Atwood

The Great Wall is somewhat narrow, and so hard to see. The width, not the length, of a object determines one's ability to see it.

Experiment:

Place a 1" x 12" ruler far away.

Next to it place a thread 10 feet long.

Which is easier to see?

I propose that a railroad track next to the Great Salt Lake could act like a dike, to separate dark water from white salt, along a 20 mile straight line, and be quite visible.

Chris Ward
Chris Ward

Re-phrase the question: What man made feature can be seen from the furthest out in space?

I don't think it's one object, but artificial light, on the dark side of the planet, which is visible from distances where making out the largest single man made feature, like a huge reservoir, would be impossible! http://www.nightearth.com/

viktor schausberger
viktor schausberger

I hear to talk about there are objects, that are not visible by the nake eyes but with the right photocamera after you develope the picture you can see what your eyes can't. can you explain me that and what kind of camera is that. PLEASE.

mike
mike

wow what a great read. I can't believe we can see that from space....I would love to go into space one day

ASFalcon13
ASFalcon13

Of course we can see man-made objects from space. If we couldn't, why would the government invest so much money in spy satellites?

Of course, if you'd like further proof, there's a website called Google Maps that features a combination of aerial and satellite imagery of all kinds of man-made objects ;)

mooeypoo
mooeypoo

@ASFalcon13, EXACTLY!!! And we can see quite a lot of detail from google map, and yet, still, people wonder whether or not items are visible from space. ha! :)

To be fair, though, the lower-latitude images from google maps are largely from planes and not from satellites, but still, even the low-orbit satellites (around 300km or so) show us quite a lot of detail.

Keith Hearn
Keith Hearn

There's also the question of what do you mean when you say "see"? See with your naked eyes? Whose naked eyes, human vision varies a lot. See with a camera? The photo of the pyramids is given as "proof" that the pyramids are visible from space, but what kind of lens was used? A telephoto? We've had cameras in space for decades that can see much smaller objects than the pyramids. My house isn't the size of the pyramids, but it's clearly visible on satellite photos. So is it visible from space? I doubt even the sharpest pair of eyes could make it out from space, even for low definitions of "space".

And how about defining "man made object"? Is the Panama Canal a man made object? I'm pretty sure it's visible from space (for most definitions of "visible" and "space"). I think most would agree that the Hoover Dam is a man made object, but what of Lake Mead? Is a lake created by man a "man made object"? Hmmm, I think it's probably not an "object", but I'm sure there are those that might disagree (on the Internet, someone will always disagree). Pick any of thousands of malls or airports, all of which are larger than the pyramids.

Basically, the whole question is ill-defined. But for further analysis, see the "Visibilty from space" section of the Wikipedia article on the Great Wall of China at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Wall_of_China#Visibility_from_space . Based on that (with the usual caveats about trusting what one reads on Wikipedia), the Great Wall is just barely, maybe, almost visible from LEO. If you know exactly where to look. And if the weather is really good and the light is right. And if you have good eyes. And maybe a good imagination.

nowoo
nowoo

One definition of the edge of space is the Kármán line, at an altitude of 100km:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K%C3%A1rm%C3%A1n_line

mooeypoo
mooeypoo

Right, and astronauts are considered officially astronauts when they passed 50km above the surface of the Earth. You can see quite more than just the pyramids from both these heights (50km and 100km).

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