Last week the world’s largest search company released an updated version of the Google Earth Timelapse, a gripping visual treat exposing the planet’s changing surface going back to 1984.
Working with NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and TIME, the Google Earth Engine “sifted through about three quadrillion pixels” collected from more than 5 million images taken by NASA’s fleet of Landsat satellites and selected those taken on cloudless days.
GE has something to do with the picture show. The company used to have a division called GE Aerospace, which designed the first five Landsat satellites, including the 4,800-pound Landsat 5 that launched in 1984. That craft earned a distinction from Guinness World Records when it became the “longest-operating Earth observation satellite” in 2012. The spacecraft, which was decommissioned and stopped collecting data in 2013, was designed for a three-year mission but served for nearly 30 years. GE managed the flight and ground missions of the spacecraft as well. It also built some of the systems that processed the pictures back on Earth. The company sold and the aerospace division to Lockheed Martin in 1992.
Landsat satellites — there have been eight in orbit so far since the program launched in 1972— circle the Earth at 16,800 mph and 423 miles above its surface along a sun-synchronous polar orbit that keeps the angle of the light falling on the face of the planet nearly constant. Each satellite records a continuous ribbon of the surface below, completing 14.5 orbits per day, or roughly one every 100 minutes. U.S. agencies and their international partners have used the spacecraft to monitor everything from agriculture and land use to climate change and disaster relief.
Landsat isn’t the only time a GE creation has been to space. On March 17, 1958, a GE-powered Vanguard rocket blasted the Vanguard 1 satellite to space. That probe is today the oldest man-made object in space. (The first two Russian Sputniks and the U.S. Explorer 1 that preceded the Vanguard 1 fell back to Earth decades ago.)
In 1960, GE’s Discovery XIII satellite became the first man-made object to be recovered from orbit. After completing 17 trips around Earth in 27 hours, Discovery brought back the first color photos of our planet from an altitude of 700 miles.
But GE’s space program didn’t just target space. In 1969, GE built an underwater habitat off the Caribbean island of St. John called Tektite I. Part of the habitat’s purpose was for NASA to conduct research on how crews would behave during long-duration space missions. It was built from two steel cylinders that were connected via a passageway. The program lasted two months, and aquanauts spent a total of 432 man-hours in the habitat.