Space-age technology is coming to the aid of archeologists searching for lost cities on China's ancient Silk Road. Data from NASA's Spaceborne Imaging Radar (or SIR-C), which flew on the Space Shuttle twice in 1994, is being used to remotely examine the Taklamakan Desert in the country's arid northwest. Remote sensing itself is not new; what is revolutionary about radar imagery is its ability to see through fine dry sand. The technology promises to relieve explorers of tedious and hazardous searching among the Taklamakan's treacherous dunes.
The project was originally dreamed up by Wong How-Man, leader of the China Exploration & Research Society of Hong Kong. Now the work is being continued by an international alliance of Chinese and American archeologists, as well as scientists from other disciplines such as remote sensing and geophysics. They are planning field work that will use radar imagery as well as ground-based geophysical techniques to sense ruins buried beneath the sands of the desert.
The team will work in the Taklamakan Desert, so inhospitable that its name in the local language means "Go in, and you don't come out." At the desert's edge, glacial melt- water feeds a string of oases where Silk Road caravans once stopped to rest and resupply. Because the climate has been getting steadily drier over the last two millennia, inhabitants were forced to move closer to the water sources, abandoning their cities to encroaching desert. Hidden for centuries among high dunes, ancient Silk Road settlements such as the already-discovered sites of Niya and Lulan hold a wealth of clues about the movement of people, goods, and ideas across Eurasia. Now, armed with radar images that show scientists where the ruins can be found, more of the Silk Road's secrets can be uncovered at last.
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