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NASA maps Beirut explosion damage from space with satellites

This damage map of a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon on Aug. 4, 2020 was created by NASA's Advanced Radpid Imaging and Analysis team and the Earth Observatory of Singapore. The most severe damage is in dark red. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Earth Observatory of Singapore/ESA)

A NASA team, using data from a European satellite program, helped map the devastation caused when an explosion rocked Beirut, Lebanon on Aug. 4.

The NASA Advanced Rapid Imaging and Analysis (ARIA) team mapped the damage using synthetic aperture radar obtained from the Copernicus Sentinel program, from the European Space Agency (opens in new tab). The radar shows changes to the ground before and after major events, such as earthquakes.

"Maps like this one can help identify badly damaged areas where people may need assistance," NASA, whose ARIA team worked in collaboration with the Earth Observatory of Singapore, said in a statement (opens in new tab). "The explosion occurred near the city's port … and is estimated to have caused billions of dollars' worth of damage."

The worst of the damage, such as around the port of Beirut, shows as dark red pixels. Orange areas have moderate damage and areas in yellow are likely less affected. Each individual pixel represents an area of 33 yards (30 meters).

Beirut's devastation has been mapped by other satellites as well, including a SkySat satellite operated by San Francisco-based company Planet. The satellite imagery, released last week, showed the port area before and after the blast occurred.

More than 200 people are believed to have died from the explosion, according to the BBC, with dozens still missing in the wake of the blast. Three cabinet ministers and several members of Parliament have resigned; the blast was caused by more than 3,000 tons (2,750 metric tonnes) of ammonium nitrate stored unsafely for six years, the report added. 

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she also tackles topics like diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, three space shuttle missions in Florida, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Her latest book, Leadership Moments from NASA, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.