It's not just the stars that twinkle in the dark of night. The Earth is twinkling too.
NASA has released new, spectacular images of our planet at night, from a satellite orbiting 512 miles above the Earth's surface. The agency stitched some of these images together to create a composite image of the entire planet. They call it the Black Marble.
But the cobweb of city lights that stretch over the planet is just one of the images that the super sensitive light sensor captured. It also sent back images of Auroras over Antarctica, volcanoes and natural gas flares.
The sensor, called VIIRS (Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite), is so sensitive that it can see a single boat light floating in the ocean, or a single street lamp if it was standing alone in a barren desert. It is aboard the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership that was launched in October 2011 by NOAA and NASA.
The images may be dazzling, but there is a lot scientists can learn from the data that the sensor is collecting. For example, researchers can see how city population centers are growing and changing based on the amount of light they send out. Scientists may also be able to more accurately study bioluminescence, the auroras, arctic ice, weather patterns and volcanic eruptions, said Steve Miller, a researcher at a NOAA institute at Colorado State. He added that biologists may be able to use this information to study the effects of city and suburban life on wildlife.
Although NASA has released a few images from the sensor over the last year, the agency calls the latest release of images "unprecedented."