New satellite gets INSANELY hi-res view of Earth

By Phil Plait | November 22, 2011 2:32 pm

On October 28th, the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System Preparatory Project (NPP) satellite launched into low-Earth orbit from Vandenberg Air Force base in California. Designed to observe Earth’s environment and climate, it’s in an 800 km (500 mile) orbit, and on November 21 it took its first images of the planet below.

And what a picture! Check. This. Out.

[Click to engaiaenate.]

What’s that, I hear you ask? It doesn’t look like that big a deal? That’s because I had to shrink the flippin’ huge 6000×6000 original image to fit the blog! The whole swath shows the planet from Canada to South America, but here’s a closer-up version:

This zooms in a bit to show Florida, Cuba, and part of Hispaniola. You can really see an amazing amount of detail, even in this compressed version.

But wait! We can zoom in even more!

Yegads. Florida dominates the upper left, with stippled clouds and Lake Okeechobee visible. You can also see the jade-green Atlantic waters, and the islands of the Bahamas, Nassau, and Freeport. And even that isn’t full-res! Download the big picture to scan over it yourself. It’s stunningly beautiful.

The image was taken with the Visible Infrared Imager Radiometer Suite, or VIIRS, which, as its names states, takes visible and IR images of the Earth. It can be used to observe hurricanes, fires, ocean surface temperatures, aerosols in the air, volcanoes, and more. It continues the incredibly valuable work done by the MODIS instruments on Terra and Aqua, two NASA Earth-observing satellites. All of these data are extremely important, in that they provide a continuous observational database of the Earth — a dynamic system that changes on very short timescales. VIIRS can deliver this data rapidly, making it that much more an asset in NASA’s toolbox.

Even as NASA’s budget gets cut, and even as climate change denial continues, the science rolls on. We must study our planet if we are to understand it, and we must study it if we are to continue to survive on it. NPP and VIIRS will help scientists — all of us — in that task.

Credit: NASA/NPP team


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Pretty pictures

Comments (31)

  1. CJSF

    Just would like to say:
    1) These images are AWESOME.
    2) “High-Res” is all relative. While these images are beautiful and clear, at 400m per pixel, that’s significantly less than the commercially available (though at smaller footprint) 50cm data now available.

    Still, wicked cool.

    CJSF

  2. Benjamin

    I can see my house! Well, I can pin-point the pixel where my house is.

  3. It’s amazing and humbling that even at that resolution and zoom, it’s like we’re not even there at all.

  4. Mike
  5. chris y

    We know where you live. We know where your wife works. We know where your children go to school. And now we can see when you do it all.

  6. TheDawgLives

    The mind-blowing thing is that even at this resolution, you can’t see any evidence of humans… Makes one feel insignificant.

  7. Can’t quite see my house, but I’m pretty sure I can see the island of Montreal, in the St-Laurent river, which is good enough for now…

  8. Chris

    Nice pictures but I’m pretty sure spy satellites get much higher resolution.

  9. CJSF

    @6 Chris: Commercial and Civil satellite sensors have gotten higher resolution data than this for decades now. But the data, up until recently, has been expensive and the public outreach has been poor. The Terra and Aqua satellites have 250m resolution, and apart from some blogs (like this), you don’t see alot of the imagery unless something spectacular and newsworthy images (fires, hurricanes, large-scale floods, for example). Landsat data has been available at 15m per pixel for a long time (although the sensosr and satellites’ hardware are breaking down now). For commercial vendors, you can routinely purchase data at sub-meter resolution, except for certain key buildings and infrastructure. The French SPOT satellites have 5m or better spatial resolution as well, and have been available for while.

    But any new “eyes” on Earth are good to have, and this missions sensors are tailored for its specific mission, for which the above-menitoned sensors are not as well suited.

    CJSF

  10. jjdaddyo

    You can really see how the drought has affected SW Georgia. All that brown should be green.

  11. sonsofslam

    Dang! I can see Tebowland!

  12. Messier Tidy Upper

    Spectacular first light (if you can call it that) for this space telescope looking at Earth. She works alright – does she ever!

    Congratulations to the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System Preparatory Project (NPP) team, all those who designed, built and fly her. Great job, superb work, thankyou. :-)

  13. clockmaker

    Does anyone know what the resolution is on the most powerful military satellites?

  14. Trebuchet

    @ 13, clockmaker:

    Yes. But if they told you, they’d have to kill you.

  15. WJM

    The mind-blowing thing is that even at this resolution, you can’t see any evidence of humans…

    = = =

    Farmland? Contrails? And the resolution isn’t actually all that hot.

  16. Chris A.

    @clockmaker (#13):
    “Does anyone know what the resolution is on the most powerful military satellites?”

    It’s actually fairly straightforward to estimate:

    The largest surveillance satellites (as far as we know) were designed to be taken into space by the shuttle (later ones have been launched by Delta IVs). The shuttle’s payload bay limits the aperture to something similar to Hubble (2.4 m). (In fact, from what I understand, a good portion of the reason Lockheed-Martin got the contract to build Hubble’s main architecture was because they already had experience in building similar-sized, space-based telescopes, AKA the KH-11 or “keyhole” satellites.) These birds generally have a perigee of around 250-300 km. The theoretical resolution of a 2.4 m mirror for (say) yellow light (580 nm) is about 0.05 arcsec.

    At a distance of 250 km, that corresponds to a resolution of about 6 cm. That’s good enough to distinguish a man from a woman, a bald man from one with hair, or a man with facial hair from one who is clean shaven (in other words “Patriot Games” pretty much got it right). Probably not good enough to read a license plate, although with multiple images from multiple angles, you might be able to tease out that scale of detail with some fancy image deconvolution algorithms.

    Now, since unmanned heavy launch vehicles have taken over for the shuttle, the 2.4 m mirror is no longer a limiting factor, so possibly there are bigger birds up there (although probably not significantly bigger). And, by using shorter wavelengths (near-UV?) that can still get through atmosphere, you should be able to tighten things up further. So yeah, it’s a pretty safe bet that if the military wants to read your license plate from orbit, they can. But they’re probably nowhere near reading the VIN off the dashboard plate, or being able to distinguish you from someone with roughly similar facial features–yet.

  17. MadScientist

    @cjsf: “hi res” is comparative and depends largely on what band you’re looking at. In the thermal infrared for example, 400m is a good resolution for a radiometer like MODIS or AIRS. In the visible the radiometers typically have a 50x50m nadir pixel footprint (older radiometers had 250x250m which is still very good for many purposes). Broadband imagers (not necessarily operating as radiometers) often have nadir pixels of 0.6×0.6m. Finer resolution in the visible (whether color or panchromatic) is possible but there are somewhat informal agreements to limit the resolution of satellite imagers and of course the downlink becomes large and power hungry.

  18. MadScientist

    @TheDawgLives: At 400m you can definitely see signs of humans. I can see some. I’m sure someone who works regularly with satellite imagers (especially those defense folks who analyze images) would be able to take a quick look and spot far more than I can see. It’s all a matter of practise and of having some idea of the characteristics of the data you’re looking at.

  19. Another Chris

    @Chris A,

    I appreciate your reasoning but Earth-imaging resolution is not as straightforward as you estimate. A system like HST can’t collect surface images primarily b/c of Earth’s rotational velocity. For this reason it’s not a good “design reference”.

    Hubble flies somewhere in the neighborhood of 550km nominally. It is capable of imaging with the _shortest_ exposure time of 0.1 sec. This is actually a really long time when talking about cameras. For Hubble in a case where it’s attempting to image something on Earth, anything in the FOV would move ~700 meters before the image shutter closes. The satellite and any like systems are simply not capable of establishing the requisite pointing lock.

    Compare this to the work to collect the Hubble Ultra Deep Field.YD3 image: HST held a precise, accurate lock on its target and kept the shutter open for something like 11.6 consecutive days (yes, days).

    @MadScientist – A thought experiment: One can have an effective resolution of 40030 km (size of Earth’s disk) and still find signs of humans. Just collect a series of night side images of the planet. City lights would change the temperature of the lone significant pixel.

  20. @MadScientist you are right. I can see hints of the road network in Detroit in the image.

  21. Phil

    New York City is pretty obviously visible. It’s remarkable to think that even from that far out the impact of our bold engineering and re-working of nature, forcing it to submit to our will, is visible from space.

    Anyway, go watch that video of the ISS flying over the earth at night and then tell me it’s humbling or mind-blowing to see how undetectable we are.

  22. Radwaste

    I’m not completely impressed. Google Earth (Moon, Mars) does better than this, and what it shows is often depressing. Florida’s barrier islands are being buried in pavement.

  23. The Lonely Sand Person

    It’s pictures like this that forcefully remind me that we live at the bottom of an ocean of air.

  24. Scott P.

    There looks to be a large circular depression just south of the St. Lawrence river in Quebec and upstate NY. just west of Lake Champlain. Is this an impact site, volcanic caldera, pareidolia, or something else?

  25. flibbertigibbet

    This is a thing of beauty- but I understand why some people here aren’t impressed by it- you’d really have to be a person that works in remote sensing to truly appreciate this. Look at how blue it is!

  26. Oscar Haglund

    Not to be a downer or anything, the image sure is pretty but 6000×6000 is not very big for a satellite image. They are often 10 000 or more pixels in width or height.

  27. WJM

    There looks to be a large circular depression just south of the St. Lawrence river in Quebec and upstate NY. just west of Lake Champlain. Is this an impact site, volcanic caldera, pareidolia, or something else?

    = = =

    Large circular-ish undepression… that’s the Adirondacks.

  28. Michael Suttkus, II

    Looking at this picture, I can’t help but think of the early weather researchers. These people did everything they could to get broad data. They set up observation networks, sharing by mail what weather events they saw on what days so that patterns could be correlated, slowly, weeks later. Hard, slow, painstaking work to accomplish a tiny fragment of what this one image gives you in an instant.

    What would one of these people have paid for this picture? How much could they have learned from just this one image? Looking down, I see the way the clouds follow the land differently than the ocean, they way they form striations across distances, etc. etc. I can see things they could only imagine.

    The world is full of amazing things, you just need to remember your perspective.

  29. Chris A.

    @Another Chris (#19):

    “Hubble…is capable of imaging with the _shortest_ exposure time of 0.1 sec. For Hubble in a case where it’s attempting to image something on Earth, anything in the FOV would move ~700 meters before the image shutter closes. The satellite and any like systems are simply not capable of establishing the requisite pointing lock.”

    Typical Hubble targets are many orders of magnitude fainter than the surface of the earth, so a faster shutter on Hubble wouldn’t make a lot of sense. Large diameter optics on a spy satellite increase resolution, but they also shorten exposure times (so orbital motion is less of a problem). The fastest high-speed cameras are capable of capturing images with durations as short as 4e-8 sec. At that speed, image blurring would not be a problem.

    My argument was entirely about what’s possible given the _optics_ of a Hubble-sized KH-11. I wasn’t claiming that KH-11s were _mechanically_ identical to Hubble (in fact, Hubble can’t focus on Earth–its near focus is greater than its orbital altitude).

    “Compare this to the work to collect the Hubble Ultra Deep Field.YD3 image: HST held a precise, accurate lock on its target and kept the shutter open for something like 11.6 consecutive days (yes, days).”

    I’m well aware–I was on the team responsible for planning and scheduling the first HDF (which, BTW, was not a multi-day long, single exposure–it was many shorter exposures stacked together. The trickiest thing to maintain was HST’s roll orientation throughout, not its pointing.)

    But comparing (relatively) long exposures of dim, deep space targets to short snapshots of bright terrestrial ones is apples and oranges. The game with a spy sat isn’t to maintain lock over long periods (which wouldn’t help even if you could because the of the constantly changing angle at which the target is being viewed), but to take very short snapshots to “freeze” the motion, much like a sports photographer. I guarantee a KH-11’s fastest “shutter speed” is a lot shorter than 0.1 sec.

  30. Rob

    >>”22. Radwaste Says:
    >>November 23rd, 2011 at 7:17 am
    >>I’m not completely impressed. Google Earth (Moon, Mars) does better than this, and what it >>shows is often depressing. Florida’s barrier islands are being buried in pavement.”

    The high-res pictures on Google Earth are taken from aircraft, not from space.

  31. Dan

    Well…you also have to remember that NPP does a lot more than visible light. Those who say other satellites have higher res are correct but that is not the point. This is the first view from a brand new satellite. A satellite packed with great science instruments. It was a prototype at one time (technically still is) but has been thrust into an operational role due to the gap in data due to lack of funding for new missions. NPP is already filling the data gap for some missions and when the EOS missions, Terra, Aqua, Aura finally end (they are already years past the original end of mission life) NPP will be the only satellite filling vital continuity gaps in science data. It does not just take pretty pictures. It measures chemicals in the atmosphere, earth radiation budget, bio mass, etc etc etc. These missions are to the most important planet in the universe….Earth.

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