Astro Digital

A new tool lets you easily browse NASA-quality photos of Earth from 2013 up to this very minute.

Last month, we wrote about Mapbox's envelope-pushing Landsat-live map. Fed by gorgeous, high-res imagery of the planet captured every 16 days by the USGS' Landsat 8 satellite, the map offers a first-of-its-kind chance to explore the Earth's surface as it appears in (almost) real time.

It's no surprise that other folks are also making moves on that Landsat data. Satellite and software company Astro Digital just released a way to easily browse Landsat imagery dating back to in February 2013 (the launch of Landsat 8) through this very moment (Landsat is constantly rephotographing the planet in patches).

Because even though the full archive of Landsat images is free and open-source, the USGS website doesn't exactly make it simple for mapping noobs to view or use it. "We truly believe that open data isn’t open unless it’s also accessible," writes Bronwyn Agrios, head of product at Astro Digital.

But the browser begins to solve that problem. Just follow these steps:

  1. Begin with a blank map of the world covered in teal nodes (which represent patches of land captured by Landsat).
  2. Click on a node, or enter an address and choose a date range using the icons at top. The column next to the map will populate with satellite photographs of that place at that time (or times).
  3. Choose one of the images. It'll fit a shadow of itself onto the map.
  4. Hit publish. You'll be offered color filters that highlight urban cover and vegetation in your chosen chunk of land. Pick one, email the file to yourself, and wait for a pretty special little map in your inbox.

The browser gets even better when you take a comparative approach. Search for images of California's El Dorado National Forest area on September 3, 19, and October 5, 2014, and you'll find striking shots covering the duration of the King Fire, which ravaged nearly 100,000 acres last fall.

At the top of this page is an image of El Dorado on September 3, fire-free, processed in red to show healthy vegetation. On September 19, shown above, you can clearly see smoke (zoom in!). On October 5, the same land is badly scarred:

Some caveats: Astro Digital's browser isn't especially intuitive. You can't layer more than one image at a time on the big blank map. But the tool, and others like it, are certain to become ever more sophisticated as times goes on. And it's important to know that it's meant as a demo for the Astro Digital API, which* gathers and dispatches satellite imagery to anyone who needs to regularly monitor a particular patch of earth: farmers, meteorologists, urban planners, local governments looking to crack down on, say, illegal logging.

But kinks and API aside, the USGS' incredible gift of open-source imagery and this kind of tool are truly advancing what non-scientists can expect when it comes to views of their planet. Never before have regular people had such ready access to geographic data at this depth and quality.

*CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated that Astro Digital's API services came with a fee. Currently, they are entirely free.

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