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Black Marble Photo Shows Off Earth’s Darker Side

The composite shot could one day help scientists make the most of the night sky

Earth sparkles by night. (NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using Suomi NPP VIIRS data from Miguel Román, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center)
smithsonian.com

Since the second humans first ventured into space, they’ve been hungry for a view of the planet they call home. From a grainy earthrise to the famous “blue marble” and its updated cousin, these high-tech snapshots of Earth are sure to please. And NASA’s most recent picture of the planet doesn't disappoint, showing off Earth’s darker side.

It’s called the “Black Marble,” reports the Orlando Sentinel’s Richard Tribou, and it’s the first image of Earth as a whole taken in five years. But the composite image doesn’t show a bright, friendly blue-and-green ball. Rather, it stitches together images of the least cloudy night views all over Earth as taken from the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership satellite. The craft is co-owned and operated by both NASA and NOAA and one day, its creators hope it will be able to spot light that’s as dim as a single lamp on a highway.

For now, it can still spot lots of light, and correct for much of the camera-confusing radiation that’s created by everything from land masses to moonlight. In a press release, NASA says that it hopes to soon be able to update night lights imagery like the new photo on a daily or monthly basis.

Soon, people who use the satellite’s imagery should be able to get photos just hours after they’re taken—providing an up-to-date peek at everything from impending disasters to conflicts and weather events. The imagery could even one day be used to snag illegal fishing operations by spotting their boats by night.

Nighttime imagery also sheds light on a growing issue: light pollution. The most recent night sky atlas shows that more than 80 percent of the world—and more than 90 percent of the United States—has light-polluted skies that hide things like the Milky Way from sight. Stargazers aren’t the only ones affected by light pollution: animals use the stars to navigate, too, and the biological systems of both humans and other animals can be disrupted by bright nights.

Okay, so there are serious scientific and surveillance reasons to photograph the night sky. But it also looks pretty amazing. So next time you’re out at night, look up: Both stars and satellites are up there, gazing down at you.

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