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Photographic Mosaic of Los Angeles and the Mojave Desert

We next view one of the best aerial photomosaics ever assembled for this writer. It’s by Aero-Service, Incorporated, through a NASA contract, during the early days of Landsat when comparing space images and aerial counterparts was a point of interest.

B/W photomosaic of the Los Angeles basin, the Transverse Ranges and adjacent segments of California.

The scene shows the Los Angeles basin, the Transverse Ranges (especially the San Andreas fault), and the adjacent segments of California, which is broadly the same "real estate" as the first image in Section 4. The black and white photomosaic, which includes the interior parts of about 8,000 photos, when reduced to a 23 x 28 cm (9 x 11 in) print, has moderately better resolution than the Thematic Mapper color composite, but the differences are not great. Because of excellent edge matching efforts, this mosaic shows little blockiness or variations in tone within each image component nor any discontinuities at the margin. However, some parallel dark banding in the Mojave Desert (see sketch map for Los Angeles image in Section 4) may be a processing artifact. In this sense, its internal purity approaches the even lighting that exists in a Landsat image, which takes about 28 seconds to scan. By varying contrast and other factors during image production, we can make a single Landsat image look similar to a photomosaic of this quality, but the latter is panchromatic (film sensitive to all visible colors). Thus it has a different mix of brightness' (tonal patterns) than that of the more narrow spectral region in a black and white image from a particular Landsat spectral band. We can approximate a panchromatic film image by calculating the first principal component from the multiple bands in a Landsat scene and then writing this on a film recorder.

We can easily make space mosaics from Landsat (or SPOT or other imaging satellite systems) inputs. A sequence of space images is continuous and has no overlap. Generally, the next orbital line, obtained at roughly the same time the next day, gives rise to about 10% sidelap at the equator, increasing to about 40% near the poles because of longitudinal convergence. The obvious problem in constructing a mosaic that is several orbital paths wide, is that, the space paths are days apart, so that the likelihood of constant weather conditions (especially minimal cloud cover) goes down as the size of the mosaic increases. We can lessen this problem by using images with few clouds taken at different times of year, but then sun angle, vegetation state, and other factors affect the picture. So, good scene matches over disparate dates are unlikely. But, since Landsat has operated for many years, the probability goes up of getting cloud-free images at generally the same time of year over a large area. However, unlike film-based primary imagery (aerial photos), the digital format for the Landsat (SPOT, etc.) images permits a number of cosmetic enhancements by computer processing of the raw data, so that we can virtually eliminate variations in natural lighting conditions inherent to Landsat imagery acquired on different dates.

MSS Mosaic from San Francisco to San Diego

Because resolution (detail) goes down when we reduce large-area mosaics to workable sizes, we use them best as synoptic guides to regional-scale landforms and features, such as mountain systems and other major geologic structures, and to the gross distribution of vegetation. This use is evident in this Soil Conservation Service Landat mosaic made from 22 cloud-free images selected from five orbital paths, that includes all of California to north of San Francisco, a part of southern Nevada, and a bit of Baja California in Mexico.

- B/W Landsat MSS mosaic of parts of California, Nevada, and Baja California, Mexico.

Digital Elevation Models: Shaded Relief Image of CA, NV, AZ, UT

Compare the above mosaic with a shaded relief, topographic image produced from Digital Elevation Model (DEM) data using a northeast direction of illumination at 30m m wavelength:

Shaded relief topographic map of California, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah.

We describe this process in Section 11. This image has a scale of approximately 1:7,600,000 and a resolution of 305 m (1,000 ft), and depicts the entire states of California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona. The DEM image, with its controlled artificial shadowing, graphically shows the structural expressions of mountain-scale landforms in the physiographic provinces described in Section 6. These provinces include elements of the western Rocky Mountains, Basin and Range, Colorado Plateau, Sierra Nevada and California Coast Ranges. Note also the flatness of valley floors corresponding to the Basins and to the Central Valley. This digital rendition also highlights the linear character of the San Andreas fault. Topographic relief is less obvious in the Landsat mosaic, but the structural features emphasized in the DEM image generally have visual counterparts in the mosaic, because elevated terrain tends to be vegetated (hence, dark in this red-band version). Thus, we see that tonal contrast substitutes for the shadowing effect in the DEM version. Areas used for agriculture (e.g., the Central Valley and Imperial Valley) show a distinctive light-dark mottled pattern. All such land use patterns are absent in the DEM version which purports only to show raw topography. At the scales and resolutions of both image mosaics, it is difficult to see any tonal or geometric patterns that would disclose the large concentrations of population. However, an alien observer from outer space presented with the Landsat image might guess at the existence of intelligent beings from the field patterns of growing crops.

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Primary Author: Nicholas M. Short, Sr. email:

Collaborators: Code 935 NASA GSFC, GST, USAF Academy
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