Dr. Robert Crippen expects the Grand Canyon to be delivered to his office
any day. Fortunately, it will be a much smaller version of the
fifty-two-foot model that he recently helped create for Explorer’s Hall at
the National Geographic Society’s newly remodeled headquarters in
Washington, D.C.

Crippen is part research geologist and part geographer. He is a specialist
in using remote sensing data, usually images and measurements collected by
satellites, to study Earth.

Pictures Tell a Story

For the past two years, he has been working extensively with elevation data
gathered by JPL’s Shuttle Radar Topography Mission. During its 11-day flight
in February 2000, the mission used radar to map more than 80 percent of
Earth’s landmass. Crippen has created dozens of images (most of which can be
viewed on NASA’s Planetary Photojournal) with data from the shuttle mission
often in combination with other satellite imagery.

Some of his favorites are panoramic and stereoscopic views of Russia’s
Kamchatka Peninsula.

He generated the images with topographic data from the shuttle radar mission
and an enhanced true-color image from the Landsat 7 satellite. "They’re not
just pretty pictures," Crippen said, "If you look at the Landsat scene, you
can see a large lake. But when you put the Landsat scene over the elevation
data, you can see that a landslide has created a natural dam and that’s why
the lake is there. I like them for what they’re telling me as well as the

He also paired shuttle radar mission elevation data with a Landsat image to
create a large Patagonia exhibit in Explorer’s Hall. The result reveals the
complex geology of this remote spot, a place like many on Earth that had
been poorly mapped before the shuttle mission. It also showcases the
remarkable level of topographic detail the mission was able to gather.

"The engineers have thanked me for making them look good," said the
soft-spoken Crippen. "They are good. The Shuttle Radar Topography Mission
has been another of those amazing things that JPL has done. People have been
trying to map the world for centuries. JPL improved most of that mapping
with a mission that lasted just 11 days. Also, the mission established a
year 2000 global baseline against which future topographic change can be

Born to Rock

A Seattle native, Crippen grew up in Southern California. His favorite
subjects in school were geology, geography and geometry. "My parents should
have named me George," he quipped.

His grandparents were rock hounds and owned a rock shop for a time. "My
father knows more geography trivia than anybody else I know, including all
my geography professors," Crippen said. "A lot of my role in the Shuttle
Radar Topography Mission has been terrain visualization, which involves
graphic arts. My grandmother and her sisters were excellent artists, and my
brother is a graphic artist, so maybe that runs in the family too."

Crippen completed his undergraduate degree with a double major in geology
and geography at the University of California Los Angeles and a master’s
degree in geology and a Ph.D. in Earth science remote sensing at the
University of California Santa Barbara. He began working at JPL while he was
a graduate student doing research along the San Andreas Fault.

"My first project with JPL included field work in the Mojave Desert, digging
with a shovel in 112 degree Fahrenheit heat to find evidence that the Seasat
satellite had imaged bedrock beneath a thin cover of sediment. I still do
occasional fieldwork, but with all the new data types and desktop computing
capabilities, many discoveries can be made while digging through data in the
comfort of an air-conditioned office."

Visualize This

Crippen has "a knack for matching wits with satellite data and coming up
with unforeseen data," wrote documentarian Nicholas Clapp in his book about
the search for the lost city of Ubar. In 1986, Crippen and JPL colleague Ron
Blom manipulated Landsat images to reveal an ancient road, a caravan route
through the Arabian desert, that helped lead to the rediscovery of the
fabled walled city.

A few years later, thinking about what you can and cannot see from a
satellite led Crippen to find a way to show the motion of an earthquake
fault with satellite imagery for the first time. "I got to thinking that if
the ground moved, you might be able to see it in satellite pictures even if
the pixels, the digital dots that make up a satellite image, are larger than
the movement. We needed the right earthquake to test the idea," he said.

The 1992 Landers quake was such an earthquake. "The Spot satellite provides
a 10-meter resolution (each pixel in the image represents an area 10 meters
or 33 feet across), and the earthquake created several fault offsets of
three to five meters (10 to 16 feet). "By "flickering" an image of the
region from before the earthquake with one taken afterwards, you’re able to
see the effect," said Crippen. The result was the first visual observation
of fault motion from space.

Recently, Crippen and Ron Blom devised a new way of processing satellite
images that "removes" vegetation to reveal the rocks below. With some
sophisticated tweaking, they can, in effect, look through the trees in an
image to see what would otherwise be obscured by the forest canopy.

"When I began my career in the 1970s, we had simple crude images to work
with. Now we’re seeing the Earth in ways we’ve never seen it before. We
always wanted more detail, more spectral bands. Now from space we can see
small ground movements and can identify minerals and plants by their
distinctive ‘colors’ in visible and invisible light. A lot of what we
dreamed about 20 years ago has come true," said Crippen. "This is the golden
age of Earth observation from space."