Ok, so the Rub’ al Khali desert doesn’t look quite as colorful to the human eye – but the false-color image is still a joy to look at. Each yellow line and dot in this image is a sand dune. Some of the sand dunes pictured here are known as ‘star dunes.’ Swirling winds pile sand up reaching heights of 250 meters (820 feet).
The Rub’ al Khali Desert (also known as the ‘Empty Quarter’) holds the record for the largest contiguous sand desert on Earth. It covers an area measuring 255,000 square miles and spans across four countries – Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates.
Don’t expect to see much rain in this desert. Annual rainfall rates top out at an inch or less. It wasn’t always this dry, though. Lake beds dot the middle portion of the desert and tease a much wetter past. Rainfall similar to monsoon rains we see today in tropical regions filled these dry lake beds.
Today’s lack of rain translates to scorching temperatures. High temperatures routinely approach 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
Did You Know: J.J. Abrams and the cast and crew used the Rub’ al Khali desert in the United Arab Emirates to create the desert world of Jakku in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Next time you see the Millennium Falcon flying through a Star Destroyer, you’ll know where they did it.
The Sentinel-2A satellite
The European Space Agency captured the stunning image using their Sentinel-2A satellite. The multispectral instrument used to capture the desert is typically used to keep tabs on vegetation cover. But it can also see detect mineral compositions across a wide area.
Colors in the image range from brown to bright purple. It’s possibly salt or gypsum according to the ESA.
Sentinel-2A is the first in a two-satellite mission for Europe’s Copernicus program. 2A and 2B (set for launch later this year) provide high-resolution imagery of Earth’s land masses including vegetation, soil and water cover. There will eventually be six different sets of Sentinel satellites. With each set providing unique observations of Earth. For example, Sentinel-1A and 1B take day and night radar imagery.