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NASA’s Laser-Imaging Tech Could Aid in Studying Earth’s Ancient Fossils

Nov 30, 2016 05:20 AM EST
Paleontologists Excavate Pre-Historic Salvadoran Site
A laser-based remote-sensing equipment called lidar, which is used in observing planets, moons and asteroids, could provide help archaeologists in finding fossils and bones hidden below Earth’s surface.
(Photo : Daniel LeClair/Getty Images)

Laser-based technologies used in observing planets, moons and asteroids, could also be useful for studying ancient fossils and bones beneath Earth.

The laser-based remote-sensing equipment called lidar (light detection and ranging) could give archaeologists hints of the fossils and bones hidden below the Earth. In lidar scanning, lasers send out short pulses, which bounce back when they hit an object.

Scientists used the equipment to find an ancient landscape in western Oklahoma to find evidence of historical remains. About 10,500 years ago, hunters gathered each year in the region - which was once the Beaver River - to look for bison, funneling herds into narrow gullies cut into the hillside by the river. The bison was butchered, taking the meat and leaving piles of skeletons behind. But none of these landscapes and fossils is visible today.

But according to NASA, the ancient landscape could be seen using a lidar, which is being used by the robotic spacecraft OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer) that launched in September 2016. The mission will obtain carbonaceous samples from near-Earth asteroid Bennu and return them to Earth for the purpose of gaining insight into the formation and evolution of the solar system and the source of organic compounds that form the building blocks of Earth.

According to George Shaw, laser systems lead for the OSIRIS-REx mission, the lidar calculates how long it takes for the signal to return and, using the information, calculate the distance. The same technology will be used in mapping an asteroid for the OSIRIS-REx mission and helping the mission team select a site on the asteroid where they could gather samples.

The OSIRIS-REx lidar was designed by Teledyne Optech, which builds a 3-D model of the surface and produces a "bare-earth" version. The technology allows archaeologists to "see structures or features that were so overgrown that they wouldn't be obvious at all to someone on the ground," Teledyne Optech vice president said in the same statement.

Using an airborne lidar, archaeologists were able to scan the landscape and uncover important history. The lidar was also used in other archaeological projects, such as the uncovering of "Ciudad Blanca" in Honduras and studying the historic landscape of New England, Universe Today reports.

The uncovering of the Beaver River is one of the 50 stories on NASA Spinoff publication, which will be released on Dec. 5.

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