The Earth as a Work of Art!

The Earth seen from space is fascinating in every shape and form. One can but stand back in wonder at the photographs taken from satellites. Our world and its riches make such an impact, because the scientific data that describe them also reveal them in all their beauty.

© Helmholtz © Helmholtz
© Philippe Gosseries
© Philippe Gosseries © Philippe Gosseries

Between 7 March and 24 April 2007, the exhibition “The Earth as a Work of Art” presented an aesthetic approach to the sciences of remote sensing from space. Twenty-six satellite images measuring 12 m² adorned the esplanade of the Berlaymont in Brussels, headquarters of the European Commission. Susan Kentner coordinated the event for the German Helmholtz Association which represents 15 German research centres involved in six fields of research, including aeronautics and space.


In addition to raising the profile of its members, the Association’s mission is to highlight present scientific problems, such as those linked to climate and energy. “The idea for the exhibition came following the unexpected success of a book of satellite images produced by the magazine GEO and the German Aerospace Centre (DLR), a member of the Helmholtz Association. Under the German EU presidency, the Helmholtz Association itself picked up the baton and decided to present our research activities in Brussels,” explains Susan Kentner. “We want to make science accessible and close to the people. The photo - graphs and data obtained by satellites have this power to catch the eye and arouse the curiosity of the general public.”

The images presented were all produced with a scientific aim and obtained by satellites operated by European or partner countries. The DLR, which gathers and processes information of this kind on a daily basis, selected photographs for the exhibition that had an undeniable aesthetic appeal while at the same time covering different applications. “Everyone can discover the many functions served by these satellites. The remote sensing devices reveal characteristics of the Earth’s surface and atmosphere, and radically change our perceptions of the world. Since the first pictures of the Earth were taken back in 1946, techniques have evolved to offer a more precise view and better understanding of our living environments.”

Many applications

Nearly all remote sensing devices have their origins in military activity. Techniques for the night surveillance of missiles, for example, today enable us to study the distribution of electricity consumption. As the military continues to improve its surveillance precision, so the civilian applications are growing. These first revolutionised meteorology and overturned the existing forecasting models. Today, satellites track cyclones, hurricanes, tsunamis, as well as the appearance and development of epidemics that are strongly linked to weather conditions, saving human lives in the process. They also make it possible to study the climate in a global and long-term context. Scientists can monitor the ozone layer and measure the effects of global warming while observing the concentrations of the various gases present in the atmosphere, each of which reflects a given section of the magnetic spectrum.

Satellite radar systems map the sea bed to describe the movement of water masses and the phenomena at work in the ocean depths. These observations of ocean currents or marine topography also help optimise sea routes, fishing, coastal defences and the siting of offshore platforms.

Last but not least, cartography has developed in a number of directions, thanks to the instant - aneous mapping of vast areas of the planet. NGOs use these maps to organise aid and cooperation in the event of natural disasters while, in the industrialised countries, satellite data facilitate spatial planning and the installation of infrastructures. Cartography applications are becoming more varied and more useful all the time, identifying mineral deposits, soil with agricultural potential, the status of crops, deforestation and underground water, for example. “It is fascinating, because the pictures obtained from all these activities really do arouse public interest in scientific research,” notes Susan Kentner.

It depends how you look at it

The pictures at the exhibition also show an Earth of surprising colours when viewed with other eyes than our own. Remote sensing systems are able to record sections of the electromagnetic spectrum that cannot be seen by the naked eye, such as infrared. These spectral bands are associated with display colours that reveal information invisible to the naked eye.

These images show false or superimposed colours that may appear surprising to the layman but that researchers are able to interpret. Thanks to these analyses, technology is able to help organise human activities, understand their sometimes irreversible impact and there by preserve the Earth. Whether vital to a popu - lation’s survival or simply useful to a region’s economic development, remote sensing tools respond to various levels of urgency. Spatial planning, for example, benefits both industrialised countries – the distribution of green areas in the heart of the Spanish capital, Madrid – and developing countries – the conversion into agricultural land of areas devastated by war on the border between Iraq and Iran.

But does the optical distance of satellite pictures also allow us to step back and reflect on the planet? “It is true that we must always consider the holistic dimension of research by integrating other cultural visions and the diverse facets of science and not remain isolated in our laboratories,” concludes Susan Kentner.


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