The Tiny Island That Was Named After a Satellite

January 3, 2023

Image of Landsat Island off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador

In the mid-1970s, a tiny island off the Labrador coast of Canada was discovered for the first time through images a satellite far overhead had sent back to Earth. This new land was named after the technological marvel that made the discovery happen, and so it got the name Landsat Island.

In 1973, a Landsat 1 satellite took pictures of the farthest reaches of the Newfoundland and Labrador provinces while it was 500 miles (805 km) above the earth. When a researcher with the Topographic Survey of Canada named Elizabeth Fleming examined the Landsat data, she found an area that had never been charted before that was only the size of one pixel on the image, and it wasn’t just an iceberg. She discovered a tiny remote island 12 miles (19.3 km) off the coast that was only inhabited by polar bears and unknown to previous cartographers.

Landsat 1 satellite with engineers
Landsat 1 NASA

But the island needed to be verified to fix its position, and that job was given to Dr. Frank Hall of the Canadian Hydrographic Service in 1976. Getting to the island to verify it from the satellite images was difficult, and the best way to get there was by helicopter.

Dr. Hall flew to the area and was lowered by a harness to the surface of the rocky island covered in ice. As he reached the surface, Dr. Hall got a rude reception. A polar bear who had staked out a hidden spot at the top of the island took a swipe at him. 

Dr. Hall managed to get himself pulled back to the helicopter without the polar bear getting another chance at him. He said he was almost “the first person to end his life on Landsat Island.” But Dr. Hall’s trip proved there was an island in the Landsat image.

Aerial photo of Landsat Island
Landsat Island

Landsat Island is tiny, measuring only 82 feet wide by 148 feet long (25 meters wide by 45 meters long). Still, this discovery allowed the area of Canada to grow by 26.25 square miles (68 square kilometers), increasing its territorial waters. The island was unofficially called ERTS Island (after the original name of the satellite) before it was officially named Landsat Island in 1979.

Landsat 1 was NASA’s first Earth-observing satellite and was a joint project with the U.S. Geological Survey. It was propelled into orbit on July 23, 1972, and was first known as the Earth Resources Technology Satellite (ERTS). A few years later, the satellite became known as Landsat 1 and has become the longest-running Earth-observing satellite. 

Nine Landsat satellites have observed Earth’s surface since 1972, though Landsat 6 didn’t reach orbit. Data from Landsat imagery has also helped find other previously unknown islands, lakes, and a reef in the Indian Ocean.

Sources: NASA Landsat (1), National Geographic, NASA Landsat (2)

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Daniel Ganninger - The writer, editor, and chief lackey of Knowledge Stew, the author of the Knowledge Stew line of trivia books, and editor of Fact World and the Knowledge Stew sister site on Medium, our ad-free subscription sites (you can find out how to join below). I hope you find things here to annoy those around you with your new found knowledge.

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