NASA satellite provides new views of Earth at night

This image of the U.S. at night was assembled from data acquired by the Suomi NPP satellite in April and October 2012.
NASA Earth Observatory/NOAA NGDC
This image of the US at night was assembled from data acquired by the Suomi NPP satellite in April and October 2012.

Today is the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 17 launch, the last manned mission to the moon. Most of the time, we think of those missions as directed outward, an exploration of space and a thrilling chance to get closer to the vast rest of the solar system. But the photos the astronauts took looking back toward Earth are informative, too, in a very different way. They provide a different perspective on our planet -- a blue marble floating alone, marvelous and fragile.

Now, NASA has released new photos of the Earth at night, taken by the Suomi NPP satellite earlier this year that show the planet as a black marble, not a blue one. These fabulous images looking down at Earth also provide a unique perspective. This time, it’s not just a beautiful swirl of clouds, but delicate pinpricks of light that outline human civilization. They remind us how pervasive and clustered we all are -- and how much light spills out of our cities and homes -- but also suggest just how little space we take up in space.

Former astronaut Buzz Aldrin recently wrote an essay in Technology Review about the experience of looking down at the Earth. I recommend reading the whole thing, but here’s an excerpt:


“As Neil and I first stood on the surface of the moon looking back at Earth -- a bright blue marble suspended in the blackness of space -- the experience moved us in ways that we could not have anticipated. We immediately realized just how precious our tiny planet truly was, knowing that everyone who had ever lived, all the knowledge that was ever discovered, everything we had ever known or loved, resided on that astonishingly beautiful, incredibly small planet we call our home.

“Yet there was also a sense of connectedness. Earth is in space, and everything that formed our planet -- the elements from distant stars that combined with other elements and found their way to this special crucible that produced life, our life -- came from space. Given that, the very question of whether we should go into space seems moot. We are already in space.”

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.