The Great Wall of China visible from space?

In the 20 November edition of CBC’s Quirks and Quarks, they interviewed Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who’s been up on the ISS. He said that while it’s true that many human artifacts are visible from space, the Great Wall actually isn’t. This is mainly because it’s long and narrow and made from local materials, so it blends in. As opposed to a four-lane highway cutting through a forest, say.



Well, if you’ve used Google Earth recently, you’d know that even objects as small as a person are visible with the right magnification.

I’ve been to the Great Wall, and hiked a lot of the restored bits. It is (well, mostly “was”) not a single wall, but many walls, almost a network like a road system with many branches, usually running along the mountain ridge tops. Some parts of this (in fact, many, many miles of it) have been restored so they supposedly look like they used to when they were made. Those restored parts are difficult to pick out, even on Google Earth, partly because they are narrow and partly because the magnification is not as high in most parts of China as it is in the USA.

The parts that have not been restored, which is most of the system, are so far gone that they don’t look like much at all even if you are standing on them. Just a bit of rough terrain with a bit different rock than the surrounding area Some parts are so grown up you have trouble telling when you are actually on the wall if you are standing on it.

No, you can’t see it from space with the naked eye. Not even close.

Search for “Badaling, China” if you want to see the wall from Google Earth. If you search for “Great Wall” or “Great Wall of China” you’ll get a bunch of restaurants. Badaling has the most extensive restored section.

Hate to burst your bubble, but the high-magnification parts of Google Earth were taken by low-flying planes, not by satellite. (And, of course, the very high-magnification parts were taken by a truck.)

Hunh - I did not know that. But nevertheless, I stand by the remainder of my post. I’d almost say that the unrestored portion of the Great Wall of China is not that impressive if you are standing on it, much less from outer space. Except that it is, in its own way. Its impressive as to its length. and in its history and in the extreme amount of person power that must have been required to build such a thing. But now, most of it would be far less visible from outer space than an interstate in the USA.

Hijack - Kennedy - is there any way to tell which parts were taken from space and which from an airplane? I live in the middle of nowhere, and last time I looked you could see my full-size van in my driveway (long since gone to the junkyard for scrap, but it lives on in Google Earth, or did last time I looked). I don’t think you could pick out a person if they were standing in my back yard, probably not even if they were laying down, but you can sure see the van. But if you look at Chicago, you can see people walking around on Navy Pier. Makes sense that those would be taken from planes, but I wonder if my house in Missouri also was pictured from the plane.

My experience is that if you want good aerial pictures you shouldn’t use Google Earth. Google maps is much better (I thought both programs used the same photos, but apparently they don’t).

Thanks for the tip. The Master has appended an update to the column.

You can usually work it out from the copyright notice. This is the reason that some places have better resolution than others (different air-photography vendors), and why some places have really bad resolution (only satellite), and why the different zones typically have sharp lines between them.

According to an article on

The discussion also depends on just what you mean by “see from space.” Bright electric lights are man made objects and can be seen from space. I suspect that a parabolic reflector carbon arc light shining at the space station would be easily noticed from orbit.

A bit of a hijack, but tangentially related.

This brings to mind a question I’ve always wanted the Straight Dope on, namely those pictures of “the earth at night” where you see all the cities lit (here is but one of many examples). Now, while I know the picture is fake to a degree because it’s cloudless (regular cloudless satellite pictures of earth are largely just pieced together of cloudless bits taken over the period of many months), I’ve always wondered about those lights, my gut tells me that each and every one of those lights are fake, that they are all just Photoshopped in using population density (which also makes me :dubious: at similar pictures which show a darkened North Korea). Surely, you can’t see lights like that from space on a cloudless night, can you? Would it look exactly like the pictures?

If it were faked, APOD would say so.

Why is it so hard to believe? We produce a lot of light.

I agree we produce a lot of light, but I didn’t think it would look like that on a map, nor did I believe that our light can be seen that way from space.

Astronauts have reported being able to see earth lights from the beginning.

Although the intensity of light falls back with the square of the distance, it is canceled out by the fact that the amount of lit-up surface you can see over a given angle increases with the square of the distance. If that weren’t so, we could hardly see the moon, which is a lot darker than, say, Tokyo.

dhkendall said:

Fake is a harsh word for a digital composite. It accurately shows the ground without ground cover. Sure, digital composites can be used to make fake images, but it’s all in how it is done, what source images are used.

And your gut is accurate because…? :dubious: Why do you think they photoshopped in fake lights vs the technique they describe of making a composite of real photographs?

Why not? Light has this distinct feature of standing out from darkness. Many city lights are not blocked from shining directly into the sky. Even ones aimed at the ground reflect off that ground and shine back into the sky. That’s what skyglow it - the brightness in the air around cities that keep you from being able to see stars when the sky is clear.

How far away can you see a car’s headlights if not obscured by hills, trees, bushes, etc? Car headlights are ludicrously dim compared to the accumulated amount of light any city is dumping into the sky.

Why not? What would keep it from looking that way? We’ve already eliminated the clouds by the use of digital composites.

True. Going from the very large to the very small, these photos (insects for the squeamish), are all composites, but I doubt anybody would call them fake.

Furthering the discussion on pictures of Earth at night, and how they look, I give you

This article shows several pictures, and discusses the techniques the astronauts use to take detailed night pictures. There is a linked video where Astronaut Don Pettit discusses the technique, demonstrates using the “barn-door” tracker he built, and shows a world tour of cities at night and discusses observations about each image.

One thing that stood out to me was comparing the pictures shown with your original sample. In the video Pettit briefly mentions the issue. The first pictures are from higher distances in black and white, at lower resolution - primarily because of the difficulty tracking because of orbital motion. The shutter has to be open long enough to expose the image, but the motion makes it tricky to keep steady.

The more detailed images taken from lower altitudes by astronauts using their steadying apparatus look a lot more distinct. The link I provide includes a side by side day/night comparison of Chicago with the same resolution.

Incidentally, NYU “garbologist” Robin Nagle was on PRI’s Bob Edwards Weekend radio program this morning, and mentioned in passing that the giant NYC garbage dump/landfill Fresh Kills could be seen from space - said she’d even confirmed it with NASA. I have my doubts.

“Can be seen from space” is a fairly low hurdle to pass. I have no difficulty at all in accepting that a garbage dump large enough to service New York City could be distinguishable from low Earth orbit. From the Moon? Probably not.

Whether or not you can see it from space, it’s longer than we thought!:

A) The (multiple) spacecraft that produced the imagery orbit at 830 miles above the surface of the Earth. At night, their Operational Line Scan (OLS) instrument has a night mode which is extremely sensitive to light radiating from the Earth’s surface and atmosphere, for operational reasons: it can detect and image aurora borealis and australis, which is useful for military space weather observation of auroral extent (an indicator of how much solar particle energy is flowing into the atmosphere), and also pick up on large-area fire phenomena (wildfires).

So, the instrument is plenty sensitive, and 830 miles isn’t that far. The thing is that the spacecraft fly in an orbit which allows them only to see a swath of the Earth about 1800 miles across, so a full globe view like the famous “Earth at Night” is a composite, made by picking the best images (cloud-free, etc.) and stitching them together (like with photoshop). Since the ground processing of those image swaths calculates accurate geolocation for each point (the magic of orbital mechanics and trigonometry), it’s easy to place any given chunk of OLS swath on the correct part of the map projection, so the glow of city lights really is being placed where the city is, and not by eyeball or paintbrush.

Long-winded, sorry. But it’s a pretty technical subject, and the truth really is more amazing than a mere “I think it’s 'shopped” blowoff.

BTW, the earliest “Earth at Night” composites were made before the early '80s. I can’t figure out exactly when, but before when I arrived at Air Force Global Weather Central for active duty in 1983, because they already had an Earth at Night framed poster in one of the hallways. That predates Photoshop by half a decade at least, so if it was faked, it wasn’t done using Photoshop or any other PC photo manipulation software.