On December 5th, 2010 scientists unveiled an unprecedented new look at our planet at night. A global composite image, constructed using cloud-free night images from a new NASA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellite, shows the glow of natural and human-built phenomena across the planet in greater detail than ever before.
Many satellites are equipped to look at Earth during the day, when they can observe our planet fully illuminated by the sun. With a new sensor aboard the NASA-NOAA Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP) satellite launched last year, scientists now can observe Earth’s atmosphere and surface during nighttime hours.
The new sensor, the day-night band of the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS), is sensitive enough to detect the nocturnal glow produced by Earth’s atmosphere and the light from a single ship in the sea. Satellites in the U.S. Defense Meteorological Satellite Program have been making observations with low-light sensors for 40 years. But the VIIRS day-night band can better detect and resolve Earth’s night lights.
The new, higher resolution composite image of Earth at night was released at a news conference at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco. This and other VIIRS day-night band images are providing researchers with valuable data for a wide variety of previously unseen or poorly seen events.
Check out the amazing gallery below of the ‘Black Marble’ our beautiful planet at night.
Photograph by NASA Earth Observatory
1. The Black Marble – Americas
This image of North and South America at night is a composite assembled from data acquired by the Suomi NPP satellite in April and October 2012. The new data was mapped over existing Blue Marble imagery of Earth to provide a realistic view of the planet. The nighttime view was made possible by the new satellite’s “day-night band” of the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite. VIIRS detects light in a range of wavelengths from green to near-infrared and uses filtering techniques to observe dim signals such as city lights, gas flares, auroras, wildfires, and reflected moonlight. In this case, auroras, fires, and other stray light have been removed to emphasize the city lights. “Artificial lighting is a excellent remote sensing observable and proxy for human activity,” says Chris Elvidge, who leads the Earth Observation Group at NOAA’s National Geophysical Data Center. Social scientists and demographers have used night lights to model the spatial distribution of economic activity, of constructed surfaces, and of populations. Planners and environmental groups have used maps of lights to select sites for astronomical observatories and to monitor human development around parks and wildlife refuges. Electric power companies, emergency managers, and news media turn to night lights to observe blackouts. Named for satellite meteorology pioneer Verner Suomi, NPP flies over any given point on Earth’s surface twice each day at roughly 1:30 a.m. and p.m. The polar-orbiting satellite flies 824 kilometers (512 miles) above the surface, sending its data once per orbit to a ground station in Svalbard, Norway, and continuously to local direct broadcast users distributed around the world. The mission is managed by NASA with operational support from NOAA and its Joint Polar Satellite System, which manages the satellite’s ground system.
2. City Lights of the United States – 2012
“Nighttime light is the most interesting data that I’ve had a chance to work with,” says Chris Elvidge, who leads the Earth Observation Group at NOAA’s National Geophysical Data Center. “I’m always amazed at what city light images show us about human activity.” His research group has been approached by scientists seeking to model the distribution of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and to monitor the activity of commercial fishing fleets. Biologists have examined how urban growth has fragmented animal habitat. Elvidge even learned once of a study of dictatorships in various parts of the world and how nighttime lights had a tendency to expand in the dictator’s hometown or province.
3. Black Marble – Africa, Europe, and the Middle East
This new image of Europe, Africa, and the Middle East at night is a composite assembled from data acquired by the Suomi NPP satellite in April and October 2012. The new data was mapped over existing Blue Marble imagery of Earth to provide a realistic view of the planet.
“Night time imagery provides an intuitively graspable view of our planet,” says William Stefanov, senior remote sensing scientist for the International Space Station program office. “They provide a fairly straightforward means to map urban versus rural areas, and to show where the major population centers are and where they are not.”
4. Black Marble – Asia and Australia
“Night time imagery provides an intuitively graspable view of our planet,” says William Stefanov, a scientist in NASA’s International Space Station program office who has worked with similar images from astronauts. “City lights are an excellent means to track urban and suburban growth, which feeds into planning for energy use and urban hazards, for studying urban heat islands, and for initializing climate models.”
5. Black Marble – City Lights 2012
The night side of Earth twinkles with light, and the first thing to stand out is the cities. “Nothing tells us more about the spread of humans across the Earth than city lights,” asserts Chris Elvidge, a NOAA scientist who has studied them for 20 years.
6. City Lights 2012 – Flat Map
This new image of the Earth at night is a composite assembled from data acquired by the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (Suomi NPP) satellite over nine days in April 2012 and thirteen days in October 2012. It took 312 orbits and 2.5 terabytes of data to get a clear shot of every parcel of Earth’s land surface and islands.
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