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Earth from Space: the eye-popping series that zooms in on our planet

Using high-tech satellites, this breakthrough show captures every corner of the globe in unprecedented detail, giving our planet a health check – and its findings are spectacular

A satellite image of the Sundarbans in the Bay of Bengal, the largest delta in the world, taken as part of Earth from Space.

A satellite image of the Sundarbans in the Bay of Bengal, the largest delta in the world, taken as part of Earth from Space.
Photograph: Satellite Image/BBC/DEIMOS IMAGING SLU

The first nature programmes went as close to the animals as the crew dared without becoming their subject’s lunch. Later, remote devices with super-zoom lenses took viewers eye-to-eye with species.

The latest breakthrough series in the genre, though, starts by massively backing away. Emperor penguins in Antarctica or Amazonian manatees are first seen from 36,000km above, in images captured by satellites. Earth from Space, which starts tonight on BBC One, is billed as a “new perspective”, and it spectacularly delivers. While TV viewers are familiar with the medium’s visual rhythms, from closeup to long-shot, this show takes them to the absolute extreme.

“We have the ultimate long-shot in this,” says producer Chloë Sarosh – though it also boasts the ultimate closeups. Using images on three levels – satellites, drones and cameras on the ground – sequences can track an animal from a God’s eye image to what its mother would see when they rub noses.

A young snub-nosed monkey in China.

A young snub-nosed monkey in China. Photograph: BBC

“The reason this series has been made now,” says Sarosh, “is because the technology is so good that every pixel of a satellite image is 30cm on the ground. So we can track an image from as far away as possible to as close as possible.”

Satellites are used by everyone from NASA and phone companies to the military and security services such as the CIA and GCHQ. The BBC, though, worked with various private companies in Britain, Spain and America. Were they using pictures that would have been taken anyway or did they order their own? “We’d say: we need an image of this place on this day at that time. But we also used images that already existed and were so jaw-dropping we simply had to include them.”

The pictures taken by satellite make sea, ice, rivers and sand look magnificent, but not everything is beautiful. Ominous brown patches on the ice pack look like bathroom damp. In fact, they are the faecal waste of Emperor penguins, but, in an unusually specific case of an ill wind blowing some good, the skid-marks are tracked to reveal new migration routes. Turquoise swirls in the ocean, meanwhile, are eventually identified as microscopic phytoplankton.

Each sequence was massively complicated to film because of the three layers, says Sarosh: “The timing is so precise. We had to have cameras on the ground and a drone in the sky at the exact moment the satellite was going over in its orbit.” But even the most meticulous TV team can’t pre-plan the atmosphere: “Clouds became the bane of our lives! There was a lake in Brazil it took us a year to get an image of, because every single one was covered in cloud.”

Land divided up into strips for farmers in Bolivia.

Land divided up into strips for farmers in Bolivia. Photograph: BBC/2018 DIGITALGLOBE, A MAXAR COMPANY

One of the aims of Earth from Space is explicitly to be a health check of the planet. Madagascar, seen from space, seems to be bleeding, but the haemorrhages are the leeching into rivers of red earth, no longer bound by the roots of vanished trees.

Reflecting the Our Planet Matters branding that the BBC has recently applied to its natural history programmes, Earth from Space is another example of the genre becoming inextricably entwined with the environmental agenda.

“Yes,” agrees Sarosh, “but I don’t think we’re imposing it on people. I think viewers want that perspective. The last episode is pretty hard-hitting on the damage there has been. There are now so many satellite images of the earth that they show specific changes – over weeks, months, years. Which means that almost every natural history story has an agenda of environmental concern behind it.”

This focus is apt because one of the first colour pictures of the earth, taken by the Apollo 8 astronauts in 1968, was instrumental in launching the environmental movement. The image of the planet, bright blue and white against the blackness, revealed a beauty, fragility and isolation that prompted protectiveness from its residents. And, as the global photo-album fattened over the decades, comparison of images revealed changes.

More unusually for a natural history programme, Earth from Space also includes stories of people. Red patterns seen from space are swoopingly clarified to be Chinese students in a mass demonstration of kung fu.

Big enough to see from space ... In China, thousands of Shaolin students move in unison in vast displays.

Big enough to see from space … in China, thousands of Shaolin students move in unison in vast displays. Photograph: BBC

“It’s not usual for a wildlife series to include people,” Sarosh admits. “But once you start looking down at the planet, it would be wrong to exclude us. But when you decide to do that, you have to find events including people that are big enough to see from space.”

If this were a 9pm thriller on BBC One, the producer and editor, while working on an image, would spot, say, sudden troop movements in a demilitarised zone. Did that ever happen?

“I think people were quite careful not to risk us seeing anything we weren’t meant to see,” says Sarosh. “The footage was heavily doctored by the time it got to us. Anyway, we just wanted beautiful or revealing images – not military secrets!”

Earth from Space starts tonight on BBC One at 9pm.


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