Video: Earth as a Glittering Black Marble

Carolyn is a staff writer for Science and is the editor of the In Brief section.

Credit: NASA Earth Observatory/NOAA NGDC/Robert Simmon

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA—Glints of light from cities, fires, gas flares, even unregistered fishing boats speckle the dark like fireflies in a new series of satellite images released today at the American Geophysical Union's fall meeting. The Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership satellite, a joint project between NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, launched about a year ago and has circled Earth 5000 times. Among its instruments is the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS), which has dramatically improved spatial resolution compared with its predecessor (the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program, which earlier produced images of Earth at night). VIIRS includes a sensor (called a day/night band, or DNB) that can see in low-light conditions, allowing meteorologists to study moonlit clouds. But the images suggest that scientists will want to take advantage of the DNB's images in multiple ways: not just to study clouds, but also to assess disasters such as power outages (such as before and after Superstorm Sandy last month), to study gas flares and estimate volumes of CO2 emissions, or to keep an eye on illegal unreported fishing (the boats emit light to draw in their stocks). On moonless nights—or during the dark winter months at the poles—the instrument can study Earth's features in the dim light of the aurora, which is particularly useful when the temperature difference between atmospheric, land, and water features is not strong enough for infrared imaging. Most surprising, though, was that the DNB can even see in the dim light of Earth's "airglow," chemical reactions in the upper atmosphere that produce a faint radiance an order of magnitude brighter than starlight, said atmospheric scientist Steve Miller, deputy director of the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere in Fort Collins, Colorado, at a press conference accompanying the unveiling. The DNB "is truly a paradigm shift," he said. "This is not your father's low-light sensor."

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