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New images from JPL's UAVSAR, the radar that sees through trees

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory may be most famous for sending Curiosity to Mars and Voyager to the edge of the solar system, but some of its coolest technology is being used right here on Earth.

For the last month, a manned C-20A aircraft owned by NASA has been flying a powerful imaging radar system built and managed by JPL over the Americas to collect data on glacier activity, map the coastal mangroves in Latin America, study tiny changes in the Earth's surface caused by the movement of magna beneath active volcanoes, help scientists and government agencies figure out how to improve the levees in New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta, and look for evidence of a 2,000-year-old lost civilization in the Peruvian desert. 

The radar's unweildy name is the Uninhabited Aerial Vehicle Synthetic Aperture Radar, but it goes by UAVSAR. What's special about UAVSAR is that it uses microwaves to acquire data rather than the light from the sun. That means the radar is not befuddled by cloud cover, or stopped by a thick leaf canopy in a rain forest. It can collect data right through these traditional barriers, which can be especially helpful in the tropics.

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"If you looked at a picture of a rain forest on Google Earth, you would only see a bunch of trees, but we would see that these forests are flooded, and that gives a lot of additional information," Naiara Pinto, the science coordinator for UAVSAR, told the Los Angeles Times.

A powerful GPS system helps the radar to fly over almost exactly the same spots from the same altitudes year after year, allowing scientists to compare detailed images of the same location over time to detect movement in the Earth's crust. Scientists can lay images collected by UAVSAR over one another to show the changes. The layered image is called an interferogram.

 And here's another benefit of this imaging system for those of us who are not volcano, glacier or water systems scientists: The UAVSAR creates beautiful, vibrant images that are just a lot of fun to look at, and can help even non-academics get a better sense of our planet. This week, JPL released some new images from UAVSAR's recent trip to South America. We added a few standout images from the radar's past expeditions around Earth as well.


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