A photograph of petrified forest fossils in Arizona. YAYIMAGES.

Using Satellites to Hunt for Fossils

Scientists could use satellite data to help them explore fossil sites before trekking into remote places.


According to a recent study published in the journal Geological Magazine, multispectral satellite imagery is already capable of helping paleontologists detect promising fossil beds before venturing into remote locations. Scientists have recently demonstrated that satellite data can greatly help paleontologists. It can reveal large individual fossils from the air, allowing field researchers to embark on more targeted searches on the ground. Satellite data can help paleontologists gather data about the terrain before they even set foot on it. Furthermore, it can help experts in studying and discarding false positives.

Scientists could use satellite data to help them explore fossil sites before trekking into remote places.


Different wavelengths

With the help of data in the ultraviolet and infrared wavelength, scientists can look at different wavelengths and how they are absorbed and reflected by the landscape, allowing them to identify specific targets on the ground, like, for example, fossils. In the past, experts have used this type of satellite data to perform detailed city surveys and track land usage patterns. However, only now has it occurred to experts that similar surveys from the air might help paleontologists in their work. To test their idea, scientists looked at data from the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. Some 200 million years ago, this landscape was home to a lush forest teeming with life. Today, it is no more than a desert with countless fossilized logs. Scientists could discern fossils from the ground or other features by looking at satellite data.

Some requisites

There is, however, a small catch. For a fossil to stand out in satellite data, its size must be equal to or larger than a single pixel in the image. Furthermore, its mineral composition must be different from the surrounding material. This is something that can be identified by the way it reacts to light.  Obviously, it is far easier to identify fossils located in open terrain, free from obstructions. Nonetheless, scientists can distinguish a tree, a rock, or a fossil by factoring in topographical data on the landscape in question.


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Written by Ivan Petricevic

I've been writing passionately about ancient civilizations, history, alien life, and various other subjects for more than eight years. You may have seen me appear on Discovery Channel's What On Earth series, History Channel's Ancient Aliens, and Gaia's Ancient Civilizations among others.

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