Can you see the Great Wall of China From Space?

11 May 2004
ESA's Proba satellite here shows a winding segment of the 7240-km long Great Wall of China situated just northeast of Beijing. The Great Wall's relative visibility or otherwise from orbit has inspired much recent debate.
 
The 21 hours spent in space last October by Yang Liwei - China's first ever space traveller - were a proud achievement for his nation. The only disappointment came as Liwei informed his countrymen he had not spotted their single greatest national symbol from orbit.

"The Earth looked very beautiful from space, but I did not see our Great Wall," Liwei told reporters after his return.  

China space
China's first astronaut
 

China has cherished for decades the idea that the Wall was just about the only manmade object visible to astronauts from space, and the news disappointed many. A suggestion was made that the Wall be lit up at night so it can definitely be seen in future, while others called for school textbooks to be revised to take account of Liwei's finding.

However such revisions may be unnecessary, according to American astronaut Eugene Cernan, speaking during a visit to Singapore: "In Earth's orbit at a height of 160 to 320 kilometres, the Great Wall of China is indeed visible to the naked eye."
 

Artist's impression of Proba in orbit
Artist's impression of Proba in orbit
 

Liwei may well have been unlucky with the weather and local atmospheric or light conditions with sufficiently low-angled sunlight the Wall's shadow if not the Wall itself could indeed be visible from orbit.

What is for sure is that what the human eye may not be able to see, satellites certainly can. Proba's High Resolution Camera (HRC) acquired this image of the Wall from 600 km away in space. The HRC is a black and white camera that incorporates a miniature Cassegrain telescope, giving it far superior spatial resolution to the human eye.

So while the HRC resolves man-made objects down to five square metres, astronauts in low Earth orbit looking with the naked eye can only just make out such large-scale artificial features as field boundaries between different types of crops or the grid shape formed by city streets. They require binoculars or a zoom lens to make out individual roads or large buildings.

Source: ESA - European Space Agency