Satellite services let Web users explore Earth

February 11, 2007|By Chris Gaither | Chris Gaither,Los Angeles Times

Andre Mueller is a virtual explorer of virgin territory.

One morning, the 25-year-old German physics student noticed a wispy line off the coast of Iceland in the patchwork of satellite imagery that makes up Google Earth.

He zoomed in.

It was smoke.

At the end of the smoke trail, he discovered three boats. He slapped a "placemark," the program's version of an explorer's flag, on the location and reported his findings on Google Earth Community bulletin board.

"What are these three ships doing there?" wrote Mueller. "And why is there so much smoke?"

His fellow office-chair detectives praised him for the discovery, then went to work to solve the mystery of the burning ship.

Google Earth is packed with things that its creators never intended. Paper maps are a cartographer's rendering of the world, whereas digital versions in Google Earth, Google Maps and Microsoft's Live Search Maps are sophisticated collages - moments captured by cameras on satellites and airplanes, seamlessly blended to create a digital world.

The photos from on high reveal life going on when the shutter opened and closed: airplanes in flight, surfers off Malibu, mourners in a Chicago cemetery, a Boston Red Sox game at Fenway Park, a cement truck overturned in San Francisco.

"These are life's moments that are unexpectedly caught from above," said Jason Lee, 30, a marketer in Bellingham, Wash.

Lee and computer programmer Jon Coogan run Bird's Eye Tourist, a Web site that compiles things of interest found in a Live Search Maps feature known as "bird's eye view."

What may appear as a blemish to digital mapmakers is a sport for virtual discoverers. The hunt is on to find and share those moments.

The Google Earth Community and independent enthusiast sites such as Google Earth Blog, Google Sightseeing and Bird's Eye Tourist serve as repositories for these finds.

John Hanke, director of Google Earth and Maps, said the hunt for interesting things reminded him of the Web's early days, before search engines and directories.

"There's a huge amount of undiscovered territory out there for these geo-explorers to go and explore," he said.

Unlike famous explorers such as Capt. James Cook, these virtual voyagers can scour the globe with little physical effort or danger. Google Earth covers about 30 percent of the world's land surface with high-resolution imagery.

Mueller, the physics student, is an amateur astronomer and map buff. On July 26, 2005, at home in Aachen, Germany, he turned his attention to what he calls the "next-generation atlas" on his laptop.

First, he activated a Google Earth feature that displays, as dots on the map, everything the program's users had ever tagged as noteworthy. He focused on empty spots. By chance, he spotted the smoke trail leading to the ship, about 7 nautical miles off the coast of Iceland's Reykjanes peninsula.

The first reply to his posting came nine minutes later.

"That scene does not look good at all," a visitor wrote on the community's bulletin board, noting the presence of another ship that appeared to be racing to help. Another member pointed out yet another ship, heading to shore.

Seven responses were posted in the first two days. One sleuth pinpointed the fire's date; he activated a feature revealing that DigitalGlobe, the company that provides most of Google Earth's satellite images, had shot the photo almost a year earlier, on Aug. 11, 2004.

But the trail went cold, and the message board silent, for three weeks. Mueller thought that the answer would never come.

"On my own I could never find out what exactly I saw," Mueller said. "But in the global village there is someone, somewhere, speaking Icelandic who knows just where to look in the right newspaper archive for details."

Programs that compile satellite imagery into maps have long existed, but the expensive price tag left them the playground of government officials, academic researchers and real estate developers.

That changed in 2004 when Google bought Keyhole Corp., a company Hanke helped create to let users view satellite images over the Internet.

Google immediately cut the price for a one-year subscription to the basic version of the mapping software to $29.95 from $69.95, then made it available free the next year. More than 200 million copies of the software have been downloaded.

Microsoft soon followed with its own program, Windows Live Local, which is now called Live Search Maps. It, like Google Maps, is a Web-based program that does not require a software download.

There are many practical uses for Google Earth. Programmers have layered housing data on maps so that renters or homebuyers can shop from above. Whale sharks, bike racers and professional sailors hooked up to global positioning systems have had their progress tracked as dots moving across the surface of the maps. Amateurs tooling around on Google Earth have found previously undiscovered meteor craters and Roman ruins.

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