Satellites Search for Ancient Artifact

August 23, 2001
By Leonard David, Senior Space Writer

WASHINGTON -- Military and private satellite snapshots of Mount Ararat in eastern Turkey reveal an anomaly that researchers say might be the remains of Noah's Ark.

A soon-to-be-launched commercial spacecraft will focus powerful cameras on the mysterious mountainside oddity to help unravel its true nature.

In the past, expeditions permitted to search the area for what some claim are the ruins of Noah's Ark, while failing to conclusively prove its existence, have succeeded in sustaining debate. The area itself is a geopolitical and religious hot spot, with Mount Ararat sitting in the far eastern frontier of Turkey, near the borders of Armenia, Georgia (formerly part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the USSR) and Iran.

Even the late Apollo 15 moonwalker James Irwin was repeatedly drawn to Mount Ararat in hopes of finding Ark wreckage. Through his High Flight Foundation, a non-profit evangelical organization based in Colorado Springs, the former astronaut made six treks to Mount Ararat in an unsuccessful quest to find remains of the ark.

Irwin's last expedition in 1990 ran into trouble. Turkish police detained him following allegations that he engaged in spying while looking for the Ark. Since 1991, the mountain has been closed due to Turkish military operations against Kurdish rebels in the area.

Today the exploration of 17,000-foot Mount Ararat and the search for Noah's Ark has moved to higher ground -- thanks to high-tech satellite flyovers.

Flood of data

To get up to speed on this search, it helps to start with the Bible.

Noah was instructed by God to save his family and the world's animals during a great flood that would cover the Earth. To do so, Noah built a large vessel, an ark. What followed was a pouring rain lasting 40 days and 40 nights. According to the Book of Genesis, as the Great Flood receded, the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat.

Now jump to 1949.

Aircraft imagery of Mount Ararat taken in June of that year and analyzed by U.S. intelligence officials includes a unique feature at the 15,500-foot level on the Northwestern Plateau. Then in 1973 and 1976, through the lenses of classified satellites, this "whatever-it-is" also purportedly stirred up the same community.

"It's called the 'Ararat Anomaly'," said Porcher Taylor, an assistant professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia, and an expert in satellite imaging diplomacy and the news media. He has been gathering evidence on the novel feature since 1993, including a set of those 1949 aerial shots of the area, now declassified.

Taylor said that arguments have erupted within intelligence circles for decades as to what truly has been seen on Mount Ararat.

"Debates center on whether or not it's a strange rock formation, a crashed airplane, perhaps a fortress or some other structure hundreds of years old … or maybe something more interesting of potentially biblical proportions," Taylor told SPACE.com. Certain individuals in the know, he added, believe what is visible in certain satellite pictures is the bow of a ship sticking out of a glacier.

The anomaly is apparently more than 600-feet long (183 meters), Taylor said, at least that part of it jutting out as seen in aerial and satellite imagery. One expert, a naval engineer and architect, when looking at the photos believes "prongs" or "ribs" of the keel of an ancient marine structure can be identified, he said.

Divided interpretation

Taylor recently took his plight to The Washington Times Corporation, publisher of Insight Magazine. That publication helped fund special snapping sessions using Space Imaging's private satellite, IKONOS 2.

On four separate dates starting in October 1999 into the summer of 2000, photos of the mountain were taken by IKONOS and processed by Space Imaging, based in Thornton, Colorado.

Space Imaging's Ikonos 2 can resolve objects as small as 3.3 feet (1 meter) across.

IKONOS pictures snapped over Mount Ararat then were contrasted with the aircraft photos taken in 1949.

A seven-person team of independent scientists and analysts scrutinized the batch of images. While clearly the photos show some type of feature, the team was divided in their interpretation. While some felt the anomaly could be human-made, others voted for rock or deferred to inconclusive data, Taylor said.

One team member concluded the anomaly had apparently shifted, suggesting that its composition was foreign and not a chunk of the mountain. IKONOS imagery confirms that the anomaly is "broken" in several places.

"The color of the anomaly is uniquely different from the surrounding strato-volcanic rock. The anomaly seems to be very smooth in texture as compared to the jagged rocks," Taylor said.

If it's human-made, then what is it? By using satellites, such as IKONOS, the saga has become a "space-based Indiana Jones," Taylor says.

'Ark-eology' via satellite

The next step in the search for the Ark takes to the air, quite literally, is just a handful of weeks.

The QuickBird 2 satellite is ready for launch on October 18 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. If successfully orbited, it will become the world's highest resolution commercial satellite.

Operated by EarthWatch Incorporated in Longmont, Colorado, QuickBird 2 can focus on objects down to nearly 20-inches (one-half meter) across. Taylor requested and then received an OK from the firm that they will point the spacecraft's imaging system at the feature in question on Mount Ararat.

"They are going after it," Taylor said.

"As of now we plan to take images … but have not solidified exactly when we will work his requests into our overall mission planning," said Chuck Herring, EarthWatch spokesman.

"Whether we do it in calibration or during commercial operations, we will work with him as it fits in our mission plan," Herring told SPACE.com.

Seeing is not easy

Extremely heavy daily cloud cover and perhaps large buildups of snow at the site make it almost impossible for hikers, planes or satellites to see anything -- unless there is a major avalanche, high-velocity wind, glacial meltdown or dissipation of clouds.

"This is a unique and unexplored site on the mountain," Taylor said. Nearly 99 percent of all Ark hunters, researchers, expeditions to Ararat have been to the Ahora Gorge. That is on the other side of the mountain, he said.

Time is of the essence, with winter closing in, Taylor said. Moreover, as more commercial satellite capability becomes available, there is increased chance that the anomaly will be identified.

In particular, hyperspectral imagery from space offers great promise.

All natural and human-made materials on the surface of the Earth have a unique signature of reflected light from the Sun. This signature is more detailed than can be captured by a conventional camera or the human eye. Hyperspectral sensors can measure this signature and actually identify materials from space.

What if the "Ararat Anomaly" turns out to be less than a Biblical blast from the past?

"I would consider it a great victory either way," Taylor said. "Everybody should realize that the world is truly transparent. The commercialization of space is a direct peace dividend of the Cold War and our space-based military satellites."

"As for the anomaly," Taylor said, "what it is … is what it is … no matter what it is."

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