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Archeology from Space

Archeologists from the University of New Hampshire and the U.S. space agency NASA have teamed up to uncover remains of the ancient Maya culture, destroyed in the ninth century, and hidden in dense rain forest for more than 1,000 years.

They made their first really exciting finds in the Guatemalan jungle in 2004; that is when NASA and university scientists, relying heavily on remote satellite sensing technology, uncovered Mayan ruins that had been hidden in the rainforests of Central America for more than a thousand years.

NASA scientist Dan Irwin says, "Remote sensing is the ability to go out beyond the range of detection through the eye. In this way we see the invisible. In the case of archeology we find archeological sites, ancient roadways, and other constructions indicative of prehistoric settlement."

It is extremely accurate.

Mr. Irwin explains how it works. "We were able to find archaeological sites in way that we were never able to do it before. At this point we are 100 percent accuracy. Who knows where it will go from here, but we think that the reason we are finding these sites is related to the fact that the Maya built their cities out of limestone and lime plaster. Through the centuries this material has decomposed, and it has affected the vegetation and the moisture in the forest canopy on top of the sites, so this is how we are able to find the sites, and to have this capability of finding sites, and their dimensions within meters of accuracy."

Armed with information from the satellites, and global positioning data and devices, a team from NASA and the University of New Hampshire traipsed through the thick Central American rainforest for several days, honing in on what proved to be multiple lost Mayan structures.

"We saw it from space. It's insane."

They knew they were getting closer as they found evidence of looting: objects left behind.

William Saturno of the University of New Hampshire says looting is a problem.

"It's not necessarily just the loss of information that looting causes, but the complete lack of respect for the material, for the people that were buried here. They are just cast aside, you know, here on the sides of the trench, thrown off, into the dirt... They are not even put back. You know, just take a pot and walk away."

At camp they go over their data and new finds, each more spectacular than the last. Guided by satellite images, the Saturno team will return to the remote site in northern Guatemala several times in the next few years to verify their research, continue refining their methods, and learn all they can about the cataclysmic environmental problems -- deforestation and drought among them -- that helped destroy this ancient Mayan civilization at its height in the ninth century of the Common Era.