Professor seeks to apply satellite imagery to anthropology

Dartmouth University professor Jesse Casana speaks during his lecture “Lost Landscapes: Research Applications of Declassified CORONA Satellite Imagery” at the Philip E. Austin Building in Storrs, Connecticut on Friday, Feb. 19, 2016. (Erming Gao/The Daily Campus)

Dartmouth University professor Jesse Casana shared his anthropological usage of the CORONA satellite imagery system during a lecture entitled “Lost Landscapes: Research Applications of Declassified CORONA Satellite Imagery” on Friday afternoon at the Philip E. Austin Building.

Casana, who works as an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at Dartmouth, began by handing out 3D glasses to members of the assembled audience, promising that they would be used later. He then began his lecture by looking at the Cold War, explaining that any U.S. attempt to perform aerial reconnaissance in Soviet territory failed. Naturally, the U.S. needed an effective solution.

“From there, the CORONA project was born,” Casana said, before diving into the science of the satellite technology. The first CORONA mission covered more area of the UUSR than all previous U.S. reconnaissance flights combined, providing valuable information to the U.S. for use in the ongoing conflict.

Clearly, the CORONA technology had other uses, and when it was declassified in 1996, it provided researchers with the first high-resolution imagery in many areas of the world. “For me, as an archaeologist, it was very exciting when we got out hands on it,” Casana said.

Casana explained that despite the advances in technology in the following twenty years, CORONA had not been discarded. “CORONA really emphasizes, in a powerful way, the way the landscape has changed,” he said.

He showed a series of images that displayed urban and agricultural intensification in the Middle East, explaining the negative impacts of the region’s developments. “When you build a dam like this, what it does is really disproportionately impact the archaeology record,” he said, while showing a satellite image of the dam.

CORONA does have its limitations. Its panoramic cameras result in severe spatial distortion, so analysts in the 1960s used a specialized optical viewer to remove image distortion. While this certainly helped, the system is still inadequate for ideal mapping.

So, Casana and his colleagues worked to develop an improved method to acquire ideal imagery from CORONA. It involves the stitching of various image segments together, and the collection of various ground control points. After that, a panoramic sensor model is used to account for distortion, and the images are projected onto a digital layout of the land.

Casana explained that he wanted to make the system available for public use. “That’s the point of the thing – to give CORONA to the people,” he said. “I want to find stuff.”

When searching through the data himself, he realized that there were thousands of archaeological sites in the Middle East that no one even knew about. “There is probably a lot that we can do with [CORONA],” he said, before showing some of these sites. “But there is so much more.”

At last, the 3D glasses were put to use. Casana went through a selection of satellite images with environmental elements that stuck out in three dimensions. It was an exciting way to see the CORONA technology put to use.

Casana closed by explaining Sunspot, which is an open access online system for CORONA orthorectification. The system allows anyone to upload their own ideal imagery that uses both the technology itself, and the method to improve its mapping capabilities.

“By doing this, I hope that we can expand CORONA coverage to other parts of the world,” he said.


Tyler Keating is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at tyler.keating@uconn.edu.