Can You See the Great Wall of China from Space?

by Nancy Atkinson on June 5, 2013

This picture, apparently the first verifiable photo of the Great Wall of China shot from low Earth orbit, was taken by International Space Station Commander Leroy Chiao on Nov. 24, 2004. Can you find it? Credit: NASA

This picture, apparently the first verifiable photo of the Great Wall of China shot from low Earth orbit, was taken by International Space Station Commander Leroy Chiao on Nov. 24, 2004. Can you find it? Credit: NASA

One popular myth about space exploration is that the Great Wall of China is the only human-built structure that can be seen from space. But it’s not true. The reality is that you can’t easily see the Great Wall from low Earth orbit with the unaided eye. And certainly, the Apollo astronauts couldn’t see it from the Moon, even though that urban legend has been widely circulated.

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who just returned from five months aboard the International Space Station, reiterated the facts about the Great Wall’s visibility from space. “The Great Wall of China is not visible from orbit with the naked eye,” Hadfield said via Twitter. “It’s too narrow, and it follows the natural contours and colours [of the landscape].”

Additionally, when China’s first astronaut, Yang Liwei, went into space in 2003, he said that he couldn’t see the structure of the Great Wall from out his capsule window.

NASA has confirmed that US astronaut Leroy Chiao took what is thought to be the first verifiable image of the Great Wall of China from out his window on the International Space Station in 2004. He photographed a region of Inner Mongolia, about 200 miles north of Beijing, but said Chiao himself said he didn’t see the wall with his unaided eyes, and wasn’t sure if the picture showed it.

The image above was taken with a 180mm zoom lens. If you can’t make out the Great Wall in the image above, here’s a cropped version of the image with annotation to help make out the feature:

This photo of central Inner Mongolia, about 200 miles north of Beijing, was taken on Nov. 24, 2004, from the International Space Station. The yellow arrow points to an estimated location of 42.5N 117.4E where the wall is visible. The red arrows point to other visible sections of the wall. Credit: NASA.

This photo of central Inner Mongolia, about 200 miles north of Beijing, was taken on Nov. 24, 2004, from the International Space Station. The yellow arrow points to an estimated location of 42.5N 117.4E where the wall is visible. The red arrows point to other visible sections of the wall. Credit: NASA.

What human-made structures are visible from space? Space Station astronauts have said the ancient pyramids at Giza are relatively easy to see out the window, but most visible are roads or long bridges across straits. Those features stand out as straight lines on the landscape, such as this image shared by Chris Hadfield:

'One straight human line drawn onto incredibly rough terrain,' said astronaut Chris Hadfield about this image. Credit: NASA/CSA/Chris Hadfield.

‘One straight human line drawn onto incredibly rough terrain,’ said astronaut Chris Hadfield about this image. Credit: NASA/CSA/Chris Hadfield.

And, of course, at night cities are visible from space because the light they produce. You can see some stunning images here that NASA released in 2012 from the Suomi NPP satellite of city lights from space.

The Apollo astronauts confirmed that you can’t see the Great Wall of China from the Moon. In fact, all you can see from the Moon is the white and blue marble of our home planet.

With all of the human construction, many buildings and other structures can be seen from space. But you can’t see the Great Wall of China from space.

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

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