Landsat Fact Meets Fiction in Kong: Skull Island

In Kong: Skull Island, we follow a crew of scientists and military specialists into the thick jungles of an uncharted Pacific island. Encounters with previously unknown creatures abound. Released in 2017, the film is set in 1973 and prominently features a fictional company—Landsat—whose work involves classified satellite data.

But is it all fiction?

For many viewers, “Landsat” probably sounds like a passably realistic name for such a company. But for Earth scientists, cartographers, and other geo geeks, such a name makes ears perk up. Landsat, after all, is a real thing.

The timing of Skull Island’s story in 1973 and the name Landsat are significant. In the movie, the fictional Landsat helps find the mythical island upon which Kong reigns. This plot point is no accident. About this fact, Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts tells Nerdist:

"One of the big sort of conceits with our movie is in the early '70s we launched a satellite into space for the first time, which was a Landsat satellite, which is a joint venture between NASA and the US Geological Survey. We were legitimately looking down at the Earth for the first time and we were finding places that we had never seen before."

The first real Landsat satellite, originally called the Earth Resources Technology Satellite (ERTS), was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on July 23, 1972. ERTS was renamed Landsat 1 in 1975. The satellite was decommissioned in 1978 after acquiring more than 300,000 images of Earth’s land surface.

The first Landsat 1 image available in the USGS archive. Robert Simmon/NASA Earth Observatory.

The Landsat program has since launched seven successors to Landsat 1. Landsat 6 failed to reach orbit, though Landsat 7 and 8 continue to collect images daily. Millions of images have been acquired and used for scientific, humanitarian, and journalistic purposes. Landsat has proven to be one of the most successful, productive, and invaluable Earth science endeavors in history.

But the overlaps between the Landsat in Kong: Skull Island and the real Landsat continue. Not only is Landsat real, the program has discovered a previously uncharted island.

In 1976, scientists analyzing imagery from Landsat 1 off the coast of Labrador noticed a number of unknown features, including a small collection of pixels that appeared to be an island. To verify the find, Frank Hall of the Canadian Hydrographic Service and a helicopter crew took flight to the newly dubbed “Landsat Island.” According to one story, this expedition could have been its own action movie:

"[Hall] was strapped into a harness and lowered from a helicopter down to the island. This was quite a frozen island and it was completely covered with ice. As he was lowered out of the helicopter a polar bear took a swat at him. The bear was on the highest point on the island and it was hard for him to see because it was white. Hall yanked at the cable and got himself hauled up. He said he very nearly became the first person to end his life on Landsat Island."

Too small to see at this scale, you can find Landsat Island in Google Maps at 60.1769° N, 64.0417° W.

Unlike Skull Island, Landsat Island is tiny: at just 25 x 45 meters, it is smaller than the home range of a real gorilla (3-15km2). You won’t find any mythically large beasts here; perhaps a wandering polar bear or two.

Nonetheless, this overlap between Skull Island and real life is a fantastic example of science fiction meeting science fact. Kudos to Jordan Vogt-Roberts and the team behind Kong: Skull Island for making the connection.

Further Reading

  1. 10 Things we Learned on the Set of Kong: Skull Island, by Nerdist.
  2. Landsat branding in “Kong: Skull Island” (2017), by Aleksey Busygin.
  3. Landsat 1, by NASA Landsat Program.
  4. Landsat Island, by NASA Landsat Program.
  5. First of Three Million, by NASA Earth Observatory.