Jeff Lagerquist,
Published Wednesday, April 12, 2017 11:04PM EDT
Last Updated Wednesday, April 12, 2017 11:05PM EDT

New images from NASA have revealed the clearest view yet of the Earth at night, according to the U.S. space agency’s researchers.

Three composite images released on Wednesday provide full-hemisphere views of civilization in the dark from the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the NASA-NOAA Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP) satellite. The clouds and the sun’s glint are added for aesthetic effect.

So-called “night lights” images have been released every decade or so for nearly 25 years. Now, NASA says it’s on the verge of delivering daily high-definition views of the Earth at night on a daily basis.

A research team led by Earth scientist Miguel Román of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. has been analyzing night lights data, and developing new software and algorithms to make the imagery clearer, more accurate and readily available.

This year’s images eliminate light from the moon, which varies the amount of light shining on the Earth. The team wrote code that picked the clearest night views each month, ultimately combining moonlight-free and moonlight-corrected data.

More than just excellent desktop photos, these stunning maps expose how humans have shaped the planet by highlighting our patterns of settlement.

Once they start to be released in greater frequency, the space agency says they could give the scientific community the ability to fine-tune weather forecasts, improve natural disaster response, track sea ice, stop illegal fishing, and measure the impacts of war.

“Thanks to VIIRS, we can now monitor short-term changes caused by disturbances in power delivery, such as conflict, storms, earthquakes and brownouts,” said Román in a release.

“We can monitor cyclical changes driven by reoccurring human activities such as holiday lighting and seasonal migrations,” he said. “We can also monitor gradual changes driven by urbanization, out-migration, economic changes, and electrification.”

NASA says the Suomi NPP satellite could eventually become so adapt at observing dim light that it would be able to pick out a fishing boat on the ocean or single highway lamp. Because it’s a civilian science satellite, the data would be freely available to scientists “within minutes to hours of acquisition.”

“The fact that we can track all these different aspects at the heart of what defines a city is simply mind-boggling,” said Román.




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