Signals From Space Become Pictures at South Dakota Rural Data Center

Associated Press

Across the road from a rural cemetery, near pastures where deer roam, stands a $50-million, space-age complex of glass and steel where scientists are tracking radiation from the Soviet Union’s Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

The Earth Resources Observation Systems (EROS) Data Center, the only government-run facility for processing information from Landsat satellites, is an anomaly in this quiet town of 963 people in southeastern South Dakota.

“Most of our people appreciate that they don’t have to battle bumper-to-bumper traffic every day or contend with pollution,” said Phyllis Wiepking, information officer at the center.

Staffers occasionally do have to contend with slow-moving tractors as they commute from nearby communities such as Sioux Falls, about 15 miles away.


More than half the 350 employees are scientists with advanced degrees. When it was built in 1973, technology required that the data center be near the middle of the continent and away from interfering radio and television signals. Though today’s technology could deliver the signals from space to almost anywhere, Garretson remains home base, and big things are happening in this small-town setting.

Source of Reactor Photos

Photographs produced at the facility, showing the Chernobyl reactor shortly after the April 26 accident, have been published in newspapers and magazines throughout the world.

The Chernobyl photographs were enhanced by computer to give the images more detail, said Allen Watkins, director of the data center.


“Our people were up most of the night and took the time to do the further analysis. Our sophisticated computer equipment allowed us to enhance the photographs as much as is possible,” he said.

He said that crops growing near Chernobyl were being monitored to see how they are affected by the fallout. Any damage from radiation will be visible in about two months, he said.

The center supplied pictures of the Chernobyl reactor to the CIA and other U.S. intelligence operations as well as to the news media, Watkins said. Other intelligence uses of such photos are classified, he said.

Operated by the U.S. Geological Survey of the Department of the Interior, the center is a national archive and research facility for data collected by U.S. satellites and high-flying aircraft.


Pictures Are for Sale

About 7 million photographs and images of the Earth stored at the center are for sale to anyone, including foreign governments and private industry.

“Some of our customers have included the U.S. intelligence agencies that, for example, want to find out the crop yields in other countries such as the Soviet Union,” Watkins said.

“Also, some of our orders have been spawned by the Iran-Iraq situation,” he said, referring to the prolonged war between the two countries. “And the Chinese are always interested in what their neighbors are up to.”


By analyzing the pictures, experts can monitor disasters, study the effects of acid rain, advise oil companies where to drill and keep track of urban expansion.

The images are picked up by satellites, called Landsats, that orbit the Earth about once every 100 minutes. The electronic signal is relayed to the data center and converted by computer to photographs, or tapes that computers translate into video images of the Earth’s surface.

The satellites, each about the size of a car, can pick up images from anywhere in the world except the poles, provided the area is free of clouds, Watkins said.

One Satellite Operating


Since the program began in 1972, five Landsats have been launched, and a sixth is being built, Watkins said. The satellites operate for about three years and are replaced as they wear out, he said, adding that just one Landsat is fully operational now.

Watkins said that while some private data companies operate on a smaller basis than the government-run EROS center, “there are no others in this country that process all the data and do all the interpretation at the level we do. No other facility has such a broad-based set of scientists. We have everything--agriculture experts, hydrologists, energy people and geologists.”

Watkins said that Landsat signals also are received and processed at 12 locations outside the United States. Other data centers are in Australia, Argentina, Brazil, India, France, Sweden and Canada.

The photo lab here resembles a hospital operating room. Technicians wear white coats and booties to keep the environment clean because a speck of dust on an enlarged photograph comes out as a blob, said Don Lauer, who is in charge of interpreting the data.


Contractor Sells to Public

A private company, Earth Observation Satellite Co. of Arlington, Va., took over sales of the photos from the federal government last September. Prices range from $50 for a 7-inch black-and-white photo to $3,300 for a computer-compatible tape, Watkins said. Sales totaled about $10 million last year.

“People wanted pictures of Mt. St. Helens, the invasion of the Falkland Islands, and of areas in California that are prone to earthquakes,” said Wiepking.

Lauer said that several people were interested in satellite pictures of Mt. Ararat, on the Soviet-Turkish border, to aid in a search for Noah’s Ark.


“Of course, they never found it,” he said.