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Mysterious Symbols in China Desert Are Spy Satellite Targets, Expert Says

Wednesday, November 16, 2011 17:09
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A strange zigzag pattern in the Gobi Desert in China. Coordinates: 40.452107,93.742118. Credit: Copyright 2011 Google - Imagery copyright Cnes/Spot Image, DigitalGlobe, GeoEye
A strange zigzag pattern in the Gobi Desert in China. Coordinates: 40.452107,93.742118.
CREDIT: Copyright 2011 Google – Imagery copyright Cnes/Spot Image, DigitalGlobe, GeoEye

Newfound Google Maps images have revealed an array of mysterious structures and patterns etched into the surface of China’s Gobi Desert. The media — from mainstream to fringe — has wildly speculated that they might be Chinese weapons-testing sites, satellite calibration targets, street maps of Washington, D.C., and New York City, or even messages to (or from) aliens.

It turns out that they are almost definitely used to calibrate China’s spy satellites.

So says Jonathon Hill, a research technician and mission planner at the Mars Space Flight Facility at Arizona State University, which operates many of the cameras used during NASA’s Mars missions. Hill works with images of the Martian surface taken by rovers and satellites, as well as data from Earth-orbiting NASA instruments.The grids of zigzagging white lines seen in two of the images — the strangest of the various desert structures — are spy satellite calibration targets. Satellite cameras focus on the grids, which measure approximately 0.65 miles wide by 1.15 miles long, and use them to orient themselves in space. [Gallery: Mysterious Structures In China's Gobi Desert]

The existence of these calibration targets may seem suspicious or revelatory, but Hill said it really isn’t; China was already known to operate spy satellites, and many other countries (including the United States) do so as well. In fact, the U.S. also uses calibration targets. “An example I found just now is a calibration target for the Corona spy satellites, built back in the 1960s, down in Casa Grande, Ariz., [at coordinates] 32° 48′ 24.74″ N, 111° 43′ 21.30″ W,” Hill told Life’s Little Mysteries, a sister site to LiveScience.

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