Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia, calibrates satellite distance measurement equipment.

Salt flats are ideal for calibrating the distance measurement equipment of satellites because they are large, stable surfaces with strong reflection, similar to that of ice sheets. As the largest salt flat on Earth, Salar de Uyuni is especially suitable for this purpose. In the low-rain period from April to November, due to the absence of industry and its high elevation, the skies above Salar de Uyuni are very clear, and the air is dry (relative humidity is about 30%; rainfall is roughly 1 millimetre or 0.039 inches per month). It has a stable surface which is smoothed by seasonal flooding (water dissolves the salt surface and thus keeps it leveled).
As a result, the variation in the surface elevation over the 10,582-square-kilometer (4,086 sq mi) area of Salar de Uyuni is less than 1 meter (3 ft 3 in), and there are few square kilometers on Earth that are as flat. The surface reflectivity (albedo) for ultraviolet light is relatively high at 0.69 and shows variations of only a few percent during the daytime.  The combination of all these features makes Salar de Uyuni about five times better for satellite calibration than the surface of an ocean.  Using Salar de Uyuni as the target, ICESat has already achieved the short-term elevation measurement accuracy of below 2 centimeters (0.79 in).
With the use of modern GPS technology, it can now be proved that the Salar de Uyuni is not perfectly flat. New measurements revealed previously missed features resembling ridges, hills, and valleys only millimeters in height. They originate from the variation in material density, and thus the gravitational force, beneath the Salar's sediments. Just as the ocean surface rises over denser seamounts, the salt flat surface also rises and falls to reflect the subsurface density variations.

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