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The Island Named After A Satellite

Satellite imagery, made available to the public through applications such as Google Earth and Google Maps, have allowed anybody with a computer or a smartphone and access to the internet to become an explorer. This have led to the discovery of dozens—probably hundreds—of places and features on the planet previously unknown to man, ranging from the biggest natural arch to tiny meteor craters.

Back in 1972, NASA had just launched the Landsat program for taking pictures of the earth from space, and sifting through the millions of images captured by the satellites was a new and exciting job for cartographers.

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Betty Fleming was working for the Surveys and Mapping branch for Canada’s Department of Energy, Mines, and Resources then. The Canadian Department received imagery for Landsat roughly every two weeks, and Fleming’s job was to map Canada’s wilderness areas and look for possible spots where new roads could be built. At the time, the hydrographic charts for the northern coast of Labrador had not been updated since 1911, when the British Army made them based on surveys and on questionable notes made by passing sailors.

Fleming was inspecting imagery off this region when she spotted several small white specks in the waters about 20 km off the Labrador coast. At first, she assumed they were icebergs, but when some of the specks kept appearing in the same position over several images, she knew they had to be permanent features. The following summer, the Canadian Hydrographic Survey Division sent a crew to visit about 20 such locations to verify their existence. Most of these locations where found to be insignificant rocks partly submerged in the sea, except one measuring about 25 meters by 45 meter. Today’s satellite-cameras are powerful enough to see individual cars and trees on the ground below, but back then researchers were so impressed that a satellite could detect such a small feature that they named this barren bit of rock Landsat Island, in honor of the satellite that helped discover it.

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Landsat Island in 1997.

Naming the island after a satellite initially proved to be difficult as it was against Canadian federal protocol to name geographic features after anything but people who were already deceased. The Landsat satellite 1 was originally called Earth Resources Technology Satellite 1, and so the island’s original unofficial name was ERTS Island, before it was officially dubbed Landsat Island in 1979, after the satellite’s name changed.

Aside from being the first and only island to be named after a satellite, Landsat Island has another significance—it marks the eastern extremity of the Canadian landmass on this part of the coast. In fact, the Canadian coastal boundary was extended to include this island within its territorial waters after the discovery, resulting in the addition of 68 square kilometers to the area of Canada.

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