While you’ve been sitting on your couch trying to remember where you put your bong, researchers at the University of Houston have been using powerful lasers to discover lost civilizations.
News came out this week about how laser technology, called “Light Detection and Ranging,” or LiDAR, was used to detect a Maya civilization much more developed than archaeologists had previously known about. According to the new National Geographic report, palaces, tombs, highways, and more than 60,000 ancient homes were uncovered by laser-equipped planes, which mapped more than 800 square miles of the Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala.
What the reports don’t make much mention of is that the tech is developed, stored and studied right down the street from a crappy ol’ Mattress Factory at the National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping in Downtown Houston. Go ‘Coogs!
“They didn’t really mention it — there’s a little bit of credit — but mostly they focus on the archaeological find and the groundwork,” said Ramesh Shrestha, director of UH’s NSF National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping. “But to do the groundwork they needed the LiDAR data that we provided. They wouldn’t be able to do it on foot.”
Shrestha told Free Press that the Center has had researchers in Guatemala since 2016 working on the project, and if any interested Houstonians want to come check out the maps and other data for themselves, they’re welcome to stop by NCALM for a tour because there’s plenty to show off. It’s not the first time NCALM has unearthed an ancient civilization in its spare time, after all.
NCALM’s LiDAR has been whipped out on more than 20 archaeological sites worldwide, Shrestha said, and even though the Maya discovery has made the biggest splash, it’s not necessarily the coolest. For instance, the laser technology was responsible for unearthing an unknown civilization in Honduras that’s currently being explored in a new documentary called “The Lost City of the Monkey God.” There’s a National Geographic report and a book about that one already, and the project has generated a lot of confidential work over at NCALM.
“The Honduran government is protecting it, there are lots of looters and that kind of thing that would destroy the site, so we just turn over the data,” he said. “We have more than 500 papers and articles about it.”
It’s all done by powerful lasers that cost millions of dollars and map 9,000 data points per second, Shrestha said, and they can see into holes in the ground and produce XYZ coordinates for an entire area. Still, the lasers are attached to planes that fly out of the Houston area, so there are certain limitations in what they can do and when. But UH is currently looking for funding to develop a more powerful laser system that operates from space and would be available 24-7. When that happens, the technology could become much more useful to people in Houston.
“We could develop a very precise flood map, based on elevation,” he said. “Better than what already exists — you could get that from this new laser.”
Still no word if it can detect your bong, though.