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3/9/2012
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John Foley
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NASA's Blue Marble: 50 Years Of Earth Images

NASA's Earth-observing satellites help scientists render photo-like composite images with unprecedented detail. Take a look, from the earliest attempts to the newest stunners.




All five instruments on NASA's new Earth-observing satellite, Suomi NPP, are now operating, giving the space agency new capabilities for monitoring our planet and collecting data for weather forecasting. The data also has a secondary role: It's used to create highly detailed, composite images of the Earth.

One such image released by NASA in January has been viewed nearly four million times on Flickr, making it one of that site's most-viewed images ever. Remarkable for its fine detail and beauty, the image is a manifestation of NASA's most advanced satellite imagery and visualization technologies.

In fact, NASA released two images of the Earth early this year, one of the Western Hemisphere (pictured here) in January, and, a few weeks later, one of the Eastern Hemisphere. They're part of the space agency's "Blue Marble" series, named after a famous photo of the Earth taken by the Apollo 17 crew in 1972.

The newest Blue Marble images are composites of bird's eye views of Earth captured by the Visible Infrared Imager Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on board the Suomi NPP (for National Polar-orbiting Partnership) satellite, launched in October 2011. NASA announced on March 7 that Suomi NPP's five instruments have been activated. The mission represents a partnership between NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Department of Defense.

NASA has been photographing Earth for more than 50 years. The first grainy black-and-white photos were beamed back in April 1960 from NASA's Television InfraRed Observation Satellite, or TIROS-1, which carried two small cameras, one for capturing wide views of the Earth (from 450 miles away) and the other for more detailed views. Over three months, the satellite took 23,000 images, which were used mainly for weather forecasting.

In 2000, NASA used data visualizers to compile an image of Earth's western hemisphere using NOAA data. Two years later, the space agency produced a more detailed, "true color" rendering of Earth's surface by stitching together four months of satellite observations of land, the oceans, sea ice, and clouds. Then, in 2005, NASA created "Blue Marble: Next Generation," a year's worth of observations taken mostly by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on board the Terra and Aqua satellites.

With its latest Blue Marble images, NASA has gone a few steps further. The Suomi satellite flies 512 miles above the Earth, but the perspective is as if taken from 7,918 miles. NASA was able to "step back" from the planet by stitching together images taken during six orbits of the Earth and creating a single composite image. The swath of Earth's surface covered by each pass of the satellite is about 1,865 miles wide.

NASA scientist Norman Kuring created the latest Blue Marble images using an Intel-based desktop computer running Ubuntu Linux and open source programs. At full resolution, the new Blue Marble composite images range from 61 megapixels to 137 megapixels. For comparison, Nikon's top-of-the-line D3X digital camera takes pictures at 24.5 megapixels.

What's next? Robert Simmon, a data visualizer and designer for NASA's Earth Observatory who created some of the earlier Blue Marble images, says he plans on making a new version based on a single day's VIIRS data that illustrates the scattering of light in the atmosphere. Image credit: NASA




The TIROS-1 satellite took this image on April 1, 1960. It was the first television picture of Earth from space. TIROS-1, operational for 78 days, delivered thousands of pictures for global weather analysis. Credit: NASA

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This is the view of Earth as seen by the Apollo 8 astronauts as they orbited the Moon in December 1968. From this perspective, the lunar horizon is 500 miles from the spacecraft and the Earth is 240,000 miles away. During 10 orbits of the Moon, images of the lunar surface were transmitted for live television broadcast on Earth. On Dec. 27, 1968, the Apollo 8 capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. Credit: NASA

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Pictured here is the Earth as seen from Apollo 17 as it traveled toward the Moon in December 1972. The area in the photograph extends from the Mediterranean Sea to the Antarctica polar ice cap. You can see the coastline of Africa and, on the horizon to the northeast, the Asian mainland. Credit: NASA

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This image was taken in August 1992 by one of NOAA's Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES). The upper right quadrant of the photo shows Hurricane Andrew as it approaches the Louisiana coast. Credit: NASA

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The underlying image of the Earth and clouds was taken in September 1997 by NOAA's GOES satellite. The ocean color data was collected by NASA's Wide Field-of-view Sensor satellite, while the land color is based on a vegetation index calculated using data from NOAA's Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer. Those data sets are combined with a digital elevation model of Earth's topography from the U.S. Geological Survey. The Moon in the upper left was an artistic addition. Credit: NASA

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This image showing land, oceans, ice, and clouds was used in creating a composite Blue Marble image. The land and coastal ocean portions were gathered over several months in 2001 by NASA's MODIS instrument on board the Terra satellite. MODIS's observations of polar ice were combined with NOAA observations of Antarctica. The cloud imagery (visible light waves and thermal infrared) was collected over three days. Credit: NASA

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Another data set used for the Blue Marble composites, this image of city lights was derived over nine months by the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program and superimposed on a darkened land map. Credit: NASA

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This "photo like" image of the Earth, based on data collected by MODIS on the Terra satellite, highlights the fact that 75% the planet's surface is comprised of water, in the form of liquid, ice, and clouds. Credit: NASA

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This composite image from the Blue Marble series was released in 2002. Much of the information contained in this image came from MODIS on board the Terra satellite. Land and coastal ocean portions of the image are based on surface observations collected from June through September 2001. Other elements include two types of ocean data, an elevation data set, polar sea ice, and clouds. Credit: NASA

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Blue Marble: Next Generation, released in 2005, is based on a year's worth of monthly composites taken in 2004. This image, taken in September 2004, shows South America. The Next Gen series shows seasonal changes to the land surface, including vegetation in temperate regions and snow cover in other places. Credit: NASA

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This high-res image was created in November 2011 by NASA's Suomi NPP team at the Space Science and Engineering Center at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. It shows a swath of eastern North America from Canada's Hudson Bay to the northern coast of Venezuela. The image was taken by the VIIRS instrument, which collects data from 22 channels across the electromagnetic spectrum. Credit: NASA

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The same swath from the previous slide is here wrapped on a globe as a way of illustrating, like a puzzle piece, the section of Earth recorded. NASA created the image using three channels (red, green, and blue) of VIIRS data. Credit: NASA

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This diagram depicts how the latest Blue Marble images were created as a compilation of overlapping image swaths (each about 1,865 miles wide) taken by VIIRS on the Suomi satellite. Blue Marble is a composite of data sets recorded during six orbits by over eight hours. Credit: NASA

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Another view of the swaths of satellite imagery that were used to create the newest Blue Marble images. These swaths were collected during a single day. Credit: NASA

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Here's what a finished Blue Marble image looks like. This high-res image of the Eastern Hemisphere, released by NASA in February 2012, was taken by the VIIRS imaging technology on board Suomi NPP, which orbits at an altitude of 512 miles and a speed of 16,640 miles an hour. Credit: NASA

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