Sonar or Later

Several sources are reporting on the discovery of the remains of the U.S.S. Macon, one of the last dirigibles flown by the United States, which foundered and sank near Point Sur in the Pacific Ocean back in 1935. A webpage on the Monterey Bay Aquarium site describes the research project nicely—including an intriguing detective story (involving a girder and a seafood restaurant) and the plans to return to the site this month for further exploration.

It takes a little digging to find the image above, which is probably a good thing, since it’s not the easiest to interpret… It’s a sonar image that shows the track of the scanning device as a vertical white line on the left, with the debris field showing up as a mottled patch on the right of the image. The U.S.G.S. offers a good description of side scan sonar techniques, including a spiffy diagram at the top of the page that should make the above image somewhat more comprehensible.

Images like this one come in handy, however, when trying to describe the challenges of scientific discovery. Part of the detective story that doesn’t show up on the website is how you take miles and miles of scans like the one above and sift through them to determine the location of interesting stuff—remains of an early-20th-century airship, for example. The astronomical community will face just such a challenge in the near future, when the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) comes online with several terabytes of imagery collected every day. How does one sift through so much data to find interesting events? And how does one convey the magnitude of that effort to the general public?

By the way, you may actually recognize the U.S.S. Macon from the famous picture of a dirigible over New York Harbor. That’s her! With Manhattan stretching out in the distance…