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For Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine:
At first glance the picture might be an abstract oil painting or, less artistically, poppy seeds scattered on cream cheese. The “cheese” in this case is a field of ice off the coast of Antarctica, and the black seeds are emperor penguins. The photo was taken from space, and is a good example of how satellite imagery is helping biologists study wildlife populations in new ways. No scientist needed to set foot near the penguin colony or fly an airplane overhead: High-resolution images from an orbiting QuickBird satellite were good enough to monitor the colony’s health over time.
“The advent of remote sensing allows us basically to see some of these areas that you physically cannot get to, no matter how hard you try,” says Michelle LaRue of the University of Minnesota. She and her colleagues use high-resolution images purchased from DigitalGlobe, Inc., one of a few private companies that license satellite imagery to governments and academic researchers. Other scientists use free satellite images from Landsat and other government-run programs. Although those tend to be lower in resolution, they demonstrate how remote sensing is important for the literal big picture: The huge areas of land surveyed by satellite make possible research that couldn’t be done otherwise. That’s true whether the location is (like Antarctica) hard to get to, in a conflict zone, heavily populated, or just too darn big.