The Black Marble: The Earth’s Iconic Image Gets a Nighttime Update

The iconic 'Blue Marble' view of Earth has been knocked out of the game by NASA’s latest image.

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image: Earth at night


If you have any conception of what the Earth looks like from space, it’s very likely thanks to the iconic “Blue Marble” photo snapped by the crew of the Apollo 17 in 1972. It’s a NASA classic, reproduced an incalculable number of times, showing the Eastern Hemisphere and its cloud cover from 28,000 miles out — the colors so perfectly bright that the image resembled a children’s toy.

The “Blue Marble” image had been updated at least twice since, most recently in January 2012, showing our well-lit planet in all its colorful glory. But now, the Blue Marble has been knocked out of the game by NASA’s latest image: the Black Marble.

The photo takes the same basic viewpoint, but shows the opposite side of the Earth — and at night. The global view shows North and South America during nightfall, with the only illuminating lights being those of the cities captured by the observing satellite.

(PHOTOS: Earth From Above: The Blue Marble)

The photo’s original resolution is so high that it’s possible to see the glow from wildfires and lights from fishing boats at sea. The images were captured by the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership Satellite, which made 312 passes around the Earth in order to photograph every bit of the hemisphere. The brightest part of the image, though, is the  ring around the eastern half of the planet, alluding to the sunlit part of the Earth just on the other side of the horizon.

Strangely, the nation’s most populous city of New York shows up darker than Chicago and Atlanta  in this snapshot. NASA explains that some of the images were taken during the widespread power outages caused by Hurricane Sandy in late October, leaving parts of New York and New Jersey bathed in darkness. The photographs were then digitally pasted on top of existing Blue Marble images in order to complete the nighttime view of the planet.

The Polar-orbiting Partnership Satellite also expanded its reach to the other hemisphere, as seen in a second “Black Marble” photo of the opposite half of the Earth. A similar orbit of the satellite captured much of the Eastern Hemisphere, too, with the brightest spots appearing around Cairo and northern Italy. It’s stunning how much difference a single light can make.

image: Earth at night

(PHOTOS: The Earth as Art: Satellite Images of Our Planet from Orbit)