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Giant Chinese Desert Mystery Structure Solved 161

Posted by samzenpus
from the that-settles-that dept.
Velcroman1 writes "Slashdotters read Monday about strange symbols in the Gobi Desert recently imaged and indexed by Google Maps. Alien landing zones? Some military thingy? Bizarre art project? Nope. The grids of zigzagging white lines seen in two of the images — the strangest of the various desert structures — are spy satellite calibration targets, according to one NASA scientist."
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Giant Chinese Desert Mystery Structure Solved

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  • by ackthpt (218170) on Thursday November 17, 2011 @07:09PM (#38092234) Homepage Journal

    So... they correspond to something on the ground they want to match, I betcha. They may have added a few lines to mask their intent, but the drawings to the west look like airfieds and I imagine the two which look like random stuff in a rectangle do match some city roads, somewhere.

    • by CmdrPony (2505686) on Thursday November 17, 2011 @07:13PM (#38092278)
      No, they don't match any other places. They're just for calibration. US has similar ones in Arizona.
      • by n5vb (587569) on Thursday November 17, 2011 @07:17PM (#38092318)

        No, they don't match any other places. They're just for calibration. US has similar ones in Arizona.

        And Texas [g.co]. (Although that one was a NASA photogrammetry calibration target, I think..)

      • by drinkypoo (153816)

        hahaha you're funny. the problem with your idea is that we already have plenty of manmade facilities the same size whose properties are known which could therefore be used for calibration. There is no logic whatosever in having any facilities strictly for satellite calibration. I'm not saying they're not used for same, but I am saying they weren't made for same.

        • hahaha you're funny. the problem with your idea is that we already have plenty of manmade facilities the same size whose properties are known which could therefore be used for calibration.

          Not to the same degree. OK, sure, you can point it at just about anything and eyeball whether it's in focus or not. But what about sensors outside the visible spectrum? Is there a weak spot in the lower left corner of the thermal imager, or is that part of your calibration target actually cooler for some reason? Only way to be sure is to have thermometers scattered across your target.

          • by drinkypoo (153816)

            I agree with what you've said, but the problem with the idea is that it's based on the concept that it's easier to go dig up the desert someplace than to plant some thermometers in a well-documented location, and it's just not supported by reality.

    • by MozeeToby (1163751) on Thursday November 17, 2011 @07:17PM (#38092332)

      They're just using it as a controlled environment to test out some new radar based spy satellites and possibly to test countermeasures against similar satellites orbited by other nations. The quasi-random grid layouts are the most visually striking, but I think the fighter jet surrounded by carefully positioned radar reflectors is more interesting. In theory you could mess up the image enough to camouflage your planes from satellite based radar. I could imagine the same being true for some of the qausi-grid layouts as well, they could be testing for multi-path effects or any number of other things.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward

        An old friend of mine told a story of developing fake fighter jets for the Airforce. Lightweight, easily deployed, looks like a plane from 1000 feet or farther away, and must withstand winds of up to 50 knots "from any direction." Thought being, three guys in a truck could drive to an existing airfield and "deploy" a squadron of jets there in a matter of an hour or less.

        The fun part came with the review by the brass... "Very impressive solution with the lightweight canvas and all, but what about the wind

    • by amicusNYCL (1538833) on Thursday November 17, 2011 @07:58PM (#38092892)

      So... they correspond to something on the ground they want to match, I betcha.

      I betcha not. I betcha they send the satellite up with an image of what to look for on the ground and where to find it, the satellite heads above it, and then orients itself until the view on the ground matches the image. The purpose is for the satellite to calibrate its own position and orientation in space. Once that's done then they can just tell the damn thing where to go to look at whatever the hell they want to look at.

    • by jimi1x (1105911)
      Anyone know what the structure is at 40.955017,100.645925 in google maps?
    • by hairyfeet (841228) <bassbeast1968@NOspaM.gmail.com> on Thursday November 17, 2011 @11:12PM (#38094250) Journal

      Nope just use Google images to check out the AZ desert and White sands in NV and you'll see similar targets like bullseyes and zig zag and all kinds of other targets. It is simply a cheap and easy way to calibrate a spy sat since all you need is a piece of desert and some white paint. IIRC there are also some bombers and fighters left in the middle of the desert in NV near an abandoned runway that is used for practicing taking shots of aircraft on the ground, its easy practice since its always in the same place and same position so it is easy to compare.

      If anything to me the interesting part is how much more poor the resolution on the Chinese sats are to the Americans since the Chinese targets are fricking huge and the bullseyes they have in AZ go down to some pretty tiny center targets. I'm sure in another decade though they'll have it tight enough they'll be able to read the license on a car, they'll just need a GUI in VB like the CSI guys.

      • by tlhIngan (30335) <slashdot@ w o r f.net> on Friday November 18, 2011 @01:33AM (#38094852)

        If anything to me the interesting part is how much more poor the resolution on the Chinese sats are to the Americans since the Chinese targets are fricking huge and the bullseyes they have in AZ go down to some pretty tiny center targets. I'm sure in another decade though they'll have it tight enough they'll be able to read the license on a car, they'll just need a GUI in VB like the CSI guys.

        The actual resolution of a spy satellite is classified. The use of smaller and smaller targets gives away the resolution of the satellite you're using it with. The fact that the targets have been getting smaller and smaller (and it's measurable) just means that they can ballpark the resolution easier.

        The Chinese "huge targets" doesn't reveal a thing about the quality of their optics. It could be (as assumed) extremely bad. Or it could be extremely good and they're now focusing on parts of the design. Hell, the other test targets around the world are known - the Chinese could simply be targeting using those targets as well, and using these to throw everyone off.

        Part of the role of a good spy is providing disinformation, after all.

        • by jackbird (721605)

          Why don't they use, say, Yankee Stadium then, or the hardscaping on the Washington Mall rather than purpose-built targets?

          • You need something that you can be sure is what you think it is. Areas open to the public are prone to changing in ways that you may not be able to predict. This is specifically constructed to be that shape, and it will be that shape every time you point a satellite at it.

          • by hairyfeet (841228)

            Because people come and go, planes fly overhead, clouds roll in, too many constant changes for it to make a good target. if you look at both the USA and the Chinese targets they are built in areas with almost zero clouds or rain, so that nothing ever changes. its always there, its always the exact same shape, size, color, etc.

            Its like that test pattern they used to show at sign off, by giving you the exact same pattern every single time they made it easy for the techs to spot problems with just a glance,

      • by jmac_the_man (1612215) on Friday November 18, 2011 @09:33AM (#38097248)

        If anything to me the interesting part is how much more poor the resolution on the Chinese sats are to the Americans since the Chinese targets are fricking huge and the bullseyes they have in AZ go down to some pretty tiny center targets. I'm sure in another decade though they'll have it tight enough they'll be able to read the license on a car, they'll just need a GUI in VB like the CSI guys.

        Confirmation bias. The targets you see are only the ones big enough to be seen clearly on Google Maps. If we (or the Chinese or the Russains or whoever) had a spy satellite that could read the year off a quarter, the quarter would just be placed in the correct place and they'd take pictures of it. The fact that you can't see the quarter on Google Maps because GOOGLE doesn't have that kind of resolution doesn't mean nobody does.

  • Bombs.. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Oswald McWeany (2428506) on Thursday November 17, 2011 @07:15PM (#38092300)

    Doesn't explain why some of the structures have heavy bomb damage.

    Assuming no foreign power has been bombing China- I can't fathom why China would bomb their own calibration units.

    (unless it was to test what would happen- before an enemy did it to them)

    • Assuming their long term plan is autonomous aircraft fighters (as is with other military superpowers), they wouldn't want entire fleets to fail because their calibration site was sabotaged or damaged.
      • by fragfoo (2018548)

        Assuming their long term plan is autonomous aircraft fighters (as is with other military superpowers), they wouldn't want entire fleets to fail because their calibration site was sabotaged or damaged.

        Yes but this way is "easy" to know were the calibration units are. If it was some random existing structure it would be harder to tell.

    • Re:Bombs.. (Score:5, Informative)

      by BitZtream (692029) on Thursday November 17, 2011 @07:31PM (#38092524)

      Yes, they drop bombs there.

      Its a bombing range. Used to practice bomb drops by the Chinese military.

    • Re:Bombs.. (Score:5, Funny)

      by demonbug (309515) on Thursday November 17, 2011 @07:36PM (#38092616) Journal

      Doesn't explain why some of the structures have heavy bomb damage.

      Assuming no foreign power has been bombing China- I can't fathom why China would bomb their own calibration units.

      (unless it was to test what would happen- before an enemy did it to them)

      Could just be for training in photo/radar interpretation for damage assessment, etc. Seems reasonable to set up a few "known" scenarios so you can train the people (or software) that will be dealing with the actual intelligence product. Probably helpful to see the results of a few known explosions when you are trying to determine how big a bomb France dropped on Libya that one time (actually, France didn't drop any ordnance on Libya; they merely surrendered it from altitude).

      • by Coren22 (1625475)

        (actually, France didn't drop any ordnance on Libya; they merely surrendered it from altitude).

        As a descendant of the French, I laughed at this joke.

    • Re:Bombs.. (Score:4, Interesting)

      by icebike (68054) on Thursday November 17, 2011 @08:44PM (#38093408)

      Doesn't explain why some of the structures have heavy bomb damage.

      Assuming no foreign power has been bombing China- I can't fathom why China would bomb their own calibration units.

      (unless it was to test what would happen- before an enemy did it to them)

      Its pretty clear this is a heavily bombed area, the whole vicinity is riddled with bomb craters. Just a few clicks away from the strange lines is a
      runway mock-up, with a shadow mock-up offset from it. Exploring this area [google.com] you can zoom in on this target ad see what appears to b missile booster stages laying around, generally facing east-to-west. They can't be tanker trucks, because they are narrower than the nearby dirt road tracks.

      Zooming out from that link shows the two mock airfields.

      I'm sure all the major intelligence agencies of the world have very much better photos than these.

      • Re:Bombs.. (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Jarik C-Bol (894741) on Thursday November 17, 2011 @09:57PM (#38093900)
        you never repurposed anything? Perhaps the area once was a bomb range (cold war era perhaps) and they have repurposed these vast tracts of government owned land into satellite calibration areas. Hell, look at this:
        http://g.co/maps/39mhb [g.co]
        That is near where i live. On google earth it looks like an air base mockup. from the ground, you can't even see the thing. That *was* an air base about 50 years ago. Now its a few foundations and a crumbling runway. Things look a lot different from above.
        • Totally off-topic, but I wonder why the trees/bushes are growing predominately on the remains of the runways? It's almost like an agar plate with the way they follow it.
    • by pclminion (145572)

      Doesn't explain why some of the structures have heavy bomb damage.

      It's a reasonable expectation that they would want to test how well their calibration devices work even if the enemy drops bombs on them.

    • by davcorp (465418)

      Unless the damage was FROM the satellite *wink* *wink*...

    • by anubi (640541)
      Yes. I am convinced this is a bomb target for calibration of "smart bombs".

      Basically, you would feed images into your bomb, showing it the path it is to follow and exactly where it is to end up.

      In the event of a war, you really cannot expect your enemy to continue to broadcast GPS and homing information for you.

      I would suspect all "space-based" assistance would be quickly rendered useless by a few tons of pea-gravel launched into an elliptical polar orbit.

      I could see where smart bomb guidance syste
      • Re:Bombs.. (Score:4, Interesting)

        by Martin Blank (154261) on Thursday November 17, 2011 @09:37PM (#38093780) Journal

        GPS is now so heavily used by so many segments of the civilian world that no nation can afford its loss unless it was about to be annihilated. The more precise signals can be re-encrypted, as they were for a long time, but the basic signal is too ingrained for the US to completely shut down GPS (or remove all access to it).

    • by ctid (449118)

      The article does explain this.

  • Why Needed? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by wisnoskij (1206448) on Thursday November 17, 2011 @07:16PM (#38092314) Homepage

    And why would these be needed. There are already many structures easily visible form space and static, so why not just use one of those?

    • by Hatta (162192)

      Ancient Chinese espionage secret.

    • Also, why would need to be something that is "visible" in the first place. A few tens of randomly placed antenna arrays should be enough no?
      • Perhaps they were worried about hacking. After all the US has had satellites hacked. It would cost more to duplicate their calibration patterns (and couldn't be put up on the fly).

        Antenna arrays could be duplicated and potentially be portable.

    • If they did that the US would spend their military budget on building weapons instead of trying to figure out what the Chinese were up to.

    • Re:Why Needed? (Score:5, Informative)

      by dido (9125) <dido.imperium@ph> on Thursday November 17, 2011 @07:23PM (#38092422)

      Well, from reading the article, I gather that it's because they might have needed something bigger because the resolution on their spy satellites is not that good. FTFA: "The calibration targets are larger than might have been expected, he said, suggesting that the satellite cameras they are being used to calibrate have surprisingly poor ground resolution."

      • But if there was absolutely nothing on earth they these poor cameras could see clearly then how are they useful in the first place?

      • by FhnuZoag (875558)
        Then again, maybe they are intended to make the US think that, when the real satellites use actually smaller targets, or calibrate using only a sub-portion of the grid?
    • Re:Why Needed? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by demonbug (309515) on Thursday November 17, 2011 @07:29PM (#38092488) Journal

      And why would these be needed. There are already many structures easily visible form space and static, so why not just use one of those?

      Lots of reasons for purpose-built ones. You know exact dimensions, they can be made any size/shape/color/material necessary to test the specifics of your imaging system, and they are presumably placed in the desert because there is rarely cloud cover - so good availability. Trying to use various existing objects/places presents all sorts of additional variables that they may wish to avoid.

    • Re:Why Needed? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by X0563511 (793323) on Thursday November 17, 2011 @08:13PM (#38093040) Homepage Journal

      Because you have corps that build things that need exorcise too? Might as well have one big project with multiple uses.

      Logistics guys get practice... logisticing?
      Engineer guys get practice building.
      Sat guys get free calibration and practice doing their stuff.
      Bombardiers and other munitions guys get practice shooting at it.
      Intel guys get practice doing damage assessments.
      R&D probably gets a chance to test a bunch of stuff, too.

      The list goes on. The question is "why not?"

  • And how exactly is a NASA scientist an expert of Chinese spy satellite technology? Just wondering.
    • Maybe he's just assuming that's what it is because he's familiar with the satellite calibration patterns that the US used with Corona in the 60s. Or maybe it's just a guess.

    • by AHuxley (892839)
      The US gov did have some non spy satellite too.
      Map Soviet harvests, drug plantations - funded as agricultural satellites.
    • Because this calibration field is for our satellites. We outsourced it. We also outsourced the satellites.

  • by OverlordQ (264228) on Thursday November 17, 2011 @07:26PM (#38092450) Journal

    This was my first thought when seeing the pictures. It looks like a giant test pattern used for cameras, given the size, likely satellite photography.

  • by BitZtream (692029) on Thursday November 17, 2011 @07:29PM (#38092500)

    The 'structures' are lines painted on the ground used for target practice.

    Its a documented bomb range with an airport and a simulated airport to bomb as well.

    If you bother to zoom out on Google Maps you can figure it out fairly quickly, oh and a few Google searchs will reveal that we've known this for years.

    • by TWX (665546)

      The 'structures' are lines painted on the ground used for target practice.

      Its a documented bomb range with an airport and a simulated airport to bomb as well.

      I hope they don't get the two confused! That would make for a whole helluva lot of paperwork...

  • by sonamchauhan (587356) <sonamcNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Thursday November 17, 2011 @07:30PM (#38092520) Journal

    Free satellite calibration provided over China

  • Alien landing zones? Some military thingy? Bizarre art project? Nope.

    Chuck Testa.

  • by 140Mandak262Jamuna (970587) on Thursday November 17, 2011 @08:13PM (#38093058) Journal
    Thats what they want you to think. No one can stop me from imagining the most paranoid delusional scenario. It is a free country and I have the freedom to be fearful of future, gays, the 99% hippies, the mexicans. I will not be pacified, I will not be ameliorated, I will not be persuaded from using words like ameliorated, It is my time, It is my mind, and I'm gonna blow it on the most trivial stuff.
  • Talk about your white balance target!

  • by Greyfox (87712)
    Thanks, China! I now know that all my spy satellites are perfectly calibrated. You can take those things down now, if you want to.
  • It's the queers. (Score:2, Informative)

    by El Puerco Loco (31491)

    They're in it with the aliens. They're building landing strips for gay martians. I swear to God.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday November 17, 2011 @08:59PM (#38093560)

    Here's my theory about the weird assemblage of lines and angles.

    They are to test the people tasked with interpreting imagery from spy satellites -- not the optics of the satellites themselves.

    Here's how it would work:

    1. The powers-that-be paint lines of varying lengths intersecting at varying angles, and over a non-flat surface (note the evidence of water drainage over some of the lines).

    2. They use their spy satellites to capture imagery of the lines at various distances and elevations.

    3. Their interpreters use these images to reconstruct the lengths/angles of the various lines.

    4. The powers-that-be check the interpreters' reconstructions with what they know was actually painted on ground.

    5. The interpreters learn how to accurately reconstruct measurements from spy satellite imagery, and thereby gain knowledge of what other countries are doing.

    6. Profit! (or something) :-)

  • So now we know what the Nazca lines were for.

  • Dammit, is nobody else interested in the giant antenna array [lifeslittlemysteries.com]?

  • by toby (759)

    You linked to FOX News...

    (which is, if nothing else, predictably consistent about whipping up paranoia about the Chinese Menace...wonder who benefits from that?)

  • Some military thingy? Nope.

    Tags: military

    Do we distinguish government intelligence ops from the military? Even when they involve China? Even when they involve orbital satellites?

    New tag: spymantics

  • Well, he might be an expert in something regarding Mars, but he knows nothing about camera calibration targets.

    Because this [google.com] (the array of lines) is what a camera calibration target looks like. The lines let you test for distortion, the spacing between the lines lets you test for resolution. Just like TV test patterns [wikipedia.org] they're carefully designed to present exactly the features you want to test for. They aren't semi random fractal patterns, and they aren't allowed to degrade the way the ones in the Chines desert have.

    The same goes for his "radar test target" - it looks precisely nothing like how aircraft normally appear on flight lines or adjacent to hangars.

  • But watch out for the space pirates. Some of them even steal ice.

  • Don't believe it - why would they say that? Look at the edge definition. These are overlays - you couldn't be that consistent on bumpy ground with whitewash. Particularly obvious on the 'airfields', someone's used a special marker-pen on the photos.
  • by Bazman (4849) on Friday November 18, 2011 @05:21AM (#38095812) Journal

    So can anyone tell me what the circled numbers 1 to 5 are:

    here [google.co.uk]

    40ft across, irregularly spaced, close to something the size of a soccer/football field.

  • I think that what we see on Google Maps is just a weird composition of several satellite images taken at days when the mountains were covered by snow and on days when there was no snow. That's it.

  • If you follow enough links as provided by slashdotters above, you will eventually find this one on the subject of Chinese window lattice designs of the 19th century:

    http://web.mit.edu/~haldane/www/icerays/ [mit.edu]

    Does Type II look familiar? There is even code for you to generate your own geometric window grille.

    See also this link:

    http://www.springerlink.com/content/u41779k5083148p7 [springerlink.com]

  • Really makes sense when you think of it, I do not know why they did not think of this 20 years ago!.....maybe could have avoided many collisions up there??

  • It's going to be embarrassing if this turns out just to be a failed real estate development. China has those too.

    Compare this image from Google Maps. [google.com] There's a nice "alignment target" in the middle of nowhere. It was supposed to be an industrial park near Dubai, but never got beyond road building. The China one looks like a project that never got beyond bulldozer stage.

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