500 terabytes of data transmitted over 6 years (January 2010 through December 2015) have been processed into a seamless 3-dimensional world map of unprecedented accuracy. According to the German Aerospace Center (DLR, or Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt),
"the quality of the global elevation model has surpassed all expectations."
The project required two satellites to fly in close proximity, as close as 120 meters apart as the project team establish breakthroughs in the technology for maneuvering the satellites. The precision flight allowed the data to be processed into maps with elevation accuracy of 1 meter. The 500 terabytes grew to 2.6 petabytes in processing, but the computers used met the challenge. From the DLR press release:
"Processing this data was an exciting challenge for us," explains Richard Bamler, Director of DLR's Remote Sensing Technology Institute. We are now all the more fascinated by our initial scientific findings. Using the current elevation model, we have shown that in some regions of Earth, glaciers are losing up to 30 metres in thickness per year in the area of the glacier tongues."
The map, officially known as the TanDEM-X global elevation model, can serve as an invaluable resource to earth scientists studying the planet we call home. But it offers amazing images to the general public as well. The image at top shows a landmark in Mauritania visible from space. Other images at the DLR site depict the craters of the nuclear tests in the desert northwest of Las Vegas, chain of volcanoes, and videos depicting the Elephant Foot Glacier and the Namib-Naukluft National Park.
Successor missions could now provide elevation updates every 8 days, effectively tracking changes in the global geology in real time. This could be invaluable for improving climate models and for tracking changes in ice coverage and sea level to help inform political decision making.
TanDEM-X is a public private partnership (PPP), using public funding from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (Bundesministerium für Wirtschaft und Energie) and cooperating with the private company Airbus Defence and Space. Dabyta from the missions is available for free to anyone with a scientific project meeting the quality standards set for the purpose.