Mysterious Formations in the Gobi Desert (Updated)

On Google Maps, a scan of Northern China’s Desert will reveal a scattering of strange and massive geometric figures. These shapes have yielded an array of explanations. Shanghaiist provides a few theories, and also a gallery of some of the images:

Though there’s speculation that the structures could be dummy mockups of street grids, built for the purpose of weapons testing, we’d beg to differ.

Given how much China loves it Transformers, it wouldn’t come as a shock to find out the structures were related to either the building, housing or appeasing of giant sentient robot lifeforms, imbued with the ability to change into badass commercial vehicles.

That, or China was quite flattered by their portrayal in Roland Emmerich’s 2012, whereby they benevolently saved the world by building massive arks, while also employing well-behaved Tibetans at the same time.

An article in The Telegraph draws a parallel to the shapes (and assorted explanations of those shapes) that can be seen in satellite photos of Area 51 in the US Nevadan desert.

Tim Ripley, a defence expert from Jane’s Defence Weekly, compared the structures to similar grids in Area 51, the secret United States military test base in Nevada. “The picture of the circle looks very like a missile test range, with target and instrumentation set out to record weapon effects. The Americans have lots of these in Nevada – Area 51!” he said.

Conspiracy theorists believe that Area 51 is home to the remains of an alien spacecraft found at Roswell, and there was no shortage on Monday of similar hypotheses about the Chinese sites.

“It looks like our own Area 51,” said one commenter on Baidu, a Chinese website. “Can it be an alien base,” asked another. “It looks like solar energy facilities, with a walkway along the side,” said a third.

Leave it to science to kill a perfectly good conspiracy theory. An article from Fox News explains:

It turns out that they are almost definitely used to calibrate China’s spy satellites.

So says Jonathon Hill, a research technician and mission planner at the Mars Space Flight Facility at Arizona State University, which operates many of the cameras used during NASA’s Mars missions. Hill works with images of the Martian surface taken by rovers and satellites, as well as data from Earth-orbiting NASA instruments.

[…]”I think we’re seeing some sort of military zone/test range, which explains the large amount of equipment and technology in an otherwise remote area,” he said. “Sometimes the truth can be just as interesting, if not more so, than the conspiracies that people come up with.”

Update: Experts cited by The New York Times disagreed with the calibration explanation, and backed the target practice theory:

“With calibration, you’re looking for precise measurement,” said Dwayne Day, a military space historian, in a telephone interview. “You have boxes that get smaller by a calculated amount. You don’t just throw stuff all over the place and then take a picture of it ….”

After an email inquiry by The Lede, the Union of Concerned Scientists, an industry watchdog and critic, said the China formations appeared to be conventional aerial and missile bombing targets. In the past, China has built large structures for bombing practice ….

“The thing that would make it really sexy is if there were fences around it — and I don’t see any,” Mr. Day, the historian, said, adding that a lack of security indicated a lack of strategic importance. “We don’t know what the heck it is, but there are probably two guys in China who could tell you what it is and you’d be bored silly.”

November 18, 2011, 6:23 PM
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