Spotting Dinosaurs from Space
 
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In 1993, after three summers of trudging across the barren rust colored hills and deep sands of Mongolia's Gobi Desert, paleontologist Mike Novacek and a team of researchers from the American Museum of Natural History stumbled upon one of the richest fossil bed ever found. The site, known as Ukhaa Tolgod, produced countless skeletons of Velociraptors, several species of dinosaur embryo fossils, hard-to-find fossils of the bird-like Mononykus, and skulls of Mesozoic mammals.
 

  Fossil Gallery

Scientist and terrain
 

 

New fossils are eroded out of the Gobi's sandstone every year. This scientist from the American Museum of Natural History stands in front of the type of rock formations which frequently contain fossils. (Courtesy American Museum of Natural History)

Since their big discovery, the researchers have traveled back to the Gobi every summer to locate additional sites and to work Ukhaa Tolgod. (see map.) Despite the scientists’ experience and their earlier success, locating potential fossil beds in the Gobi continues to be a difficult task. The desert is vast and inhospitable with few roads, harsh winds, and 100-degree (Fahrenheit) temperatures. Maps are often inaccurate and trails are unmarked. Traipsing about looking for these outcrops of reddish-brown sandstone where fossils are often found requires an enormous amount of time and money.

Recently, in an effort to improve their chances, the museum researchers have turned their attention to orbiting satellites. Using the images these satellites produce of the Earth, Novacek and his team have found a way to locate potential fossil beds before they even set foot in the desert. Already their efforts uncovered one site last year that produced several good specimens. In the future they hope the images will not only cut down on the time they spend trekking around the desert, but will also ensure that they never stop retrieving remarkable specimens from the reddish-brown sandstone of the Gobi.

next A Layered Past

The data used in this study are available in one or more of NASA's Earth Science Data Centers.

 

Mongolia Globe
Mongolia lies between eastern Russia and China. The Gobi Desert covers the southern half of the country and parts of northern China. (map detail) (Map by Robert Simmon)

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