East of the Blue Marble

By Phil Plait | February 2, 2012 1:45 pm

Last week, I posted an exceptional image of our home world as seen by the Suomi NPP Earth-observing satellite. The image was so popular that NASA released a second one, this time of the Eastern hemisphere, showing once again why it’s called the Blue Marble:

[Click to engaiaenate, or grab the terrestrialicious 11,500 x 11,500 pixel shot].

Like the other one, this is a mosaic, created over six different orbits — the bright north/south swaths are actually the reflection of the Sun in the ocean as the satellite passed over that area multiple times.

Although the satellite is in low Earth orbit, just a few hundred kilometers off the surface, the images have been mosaicked together to represent the view as if you were about 13,000 km (8000 miles) away. You’re seeing most of but not quite all of the entire hemisphere here. The inset image shows why; the farther you are from Earth the more of it you see.

If you’re having a hard time picturing that, imagine taking a camera and holding it a couple of centimeters from your floor. You only see a small section of the floor, right? Now take hundreds of pictures, moving the camera each time to get a different part of the floor. If you stitch those pictures together you have a complete image of your floor, even though it was too big to see from any individual shot. It’s as if you were hovering over the floor from higher up and took one shot.

That’s how this was done as well, though the pictures couldn’t just be stitched together; they had to be warped a bit to account for the Earth being round (near the Earth’s limb you’re seeing the ground at more of an angle than what’s directly below you). That’s why the image gives you such an overwhelming feeling of perspective, of actually being over the planet from all those thousands of kilometers away.

And I wonder… someday, our children may get this view every day, just by looking out a window. Every time I think about that, I get a chill. When I was a kid, that thought was science fiction. Now it’s maybe just a few more years down the road.

[UPDATE: Right after posting this, I got a feeling of deja-vu, and suddenly realized where I’ve seen this view of the Earth before: Apollo 17. What I wrote in that last paragraph is literally true: humans have seen this view before, and I hope that one day it will be routine to see it this way once again.]

Related posts:

Mosaic of home
New satellite gets INSANELY hi-res view of Earth
Rosetta takes some home pictures
Earth from Rosetta
What does a lunar eclipse look like from the Moon?

Image credit: NASA/NOAA.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (40)

  1. CJSF

    I wonder when we’ll get the first orthographically projected whole hemisphere images and global maps in geographic coordinates/aspect…


  2. Stu Harris

    In his TV documentary “The Other Side of the Moon” James Burke rates the fact that men have seen that view as one of the major payoffs of Apollo. A very poor quality but viewable version is now on Youtube:

  3. CR

    Another beautiful pic! On this one, though, there are four prominent vertical lines of reflected light over ocean areas, extending from pole-to-pole (though they get less noticeable at the poles). Was that an unavoidable artifact of the satellite passing over the water and catching sunlight? Curiously, I didn’t notice them on the pic of the other side, which makes their presence even more noticable to me. It looks odd, reminding me of a giant peeled orange painted to look like Earth.

    Anyway, I’d love someday to actually see such a view with my own eyes (in other words, from an orbiting space station).

  4. Zenzan

    Damn it Phil, couldn’t theylet it rotate a few more hours so Australia was in view? :)

  5. Gwif

    There’s a swirling cloud vortex in the South Indian Ocean in both this picture and the Apollo 17 one.

  6. Stachoni

    Um, wasn’t “our children may get this view every day… a few years down the road” one of Gingrich’s plans? Before everyone jumped on him for it? I mean, wouldn’t building a space station our children could live on also break NASA just as well?

  7. Lee from NC

    Maybe it’s the angle, but it looks like there is significantly less ice at the South Pole in the current picture vs. the older one. :(

  8. Wouter

    @Lee +1

    woohoo I can see my house at Lake Vic!

    question: what are these 4 vertical white bands running across the earth. result of the stitching?

  9. Paul Hannah

    Damn! Australia misses out both times!

  10. artbot

    There’s still too much spherical warping going on for my taste. I noticed it with the previous Western view, too, but this comparison of Africa to the Apollo 17 image confirms it. It just makes the earth look too small and unreal.

  11. gopher65

    artbot: My thoughts exactly. The distortion effect was great enough that at first glance I thought this was a photoshopped picture of Earth, before dismissing that idea. Then I read the blog post and realized that I was right the first time:P.

  12. Chip

    not only is there significantly less ice at the southern pole in the mosaic image as compared to the Apollo 17 image, but there’s also a lot less greenery on the African continent. Dayum, humans suck! Why we godda be fuggin up shiz all the time!

  13. OtherRob

    I’m not so sure it’s a case of their being more ice in the Apollo 17 image. I think we simply see more of the South Pole in the Apollo 17 image than we do in this one. Though it’s a little hard to tell through the cloud cover, in the Apollo image it looks like the tip of Africa is a good bit “higher” on the globe, which would mean more of the South Pole is exposed.

  14. Messier Tidy Upper

    Blue marble?

    Well blue is right but not marble – I think basalt is a bit more common making up more of Earth’s rocks! 😉

  15. kat wagner

    Blue Marble it is, and this shot makes me just as goosebumpy as the first one.

  16. Messier Tidy Upper

    @15. Chip :

    “not [sic] only is there significantly less ice at the southern pole in the mosaic image as compared to the Apollo 17 image, but there’s also a lot less greenery on the African continent. Dayum, humans suck!”

    In fairness, remember that that could be due to seasonal factors if one image was taken during winter and the other in summer. Not sure whether or not that’s the case.

    EDIT : Wiki-check notes Apollo 17 flew in December 1972 so southern hemisphere’s early summer.

    Also as #16 OtherRob has noted already there’s also the slightly different angles to consider.

    I take your point though still. Yes Humans are having some visible effects on earth even as seen from space – the shrinkage of the Aral sea (also Lake Chad and /or a few others if memory serves) ,desertification, deforestation and the reduced and ever reducing sea ice area in the Arctic especially to name a few.

    I suspect that if sentient aliens are watching from vast distances through incredibly powerful scopes they might well falsely conclude that we are a desert loving species deliberateley trying to “terrafrom” our planet into a more desert state.

  17. Ganzy

    Phil, thanks for the explanation of Earths tiger stripes. After my initial mesmerization my gaze wandered on to those massive cloudy claw marks, and my mind started to wander in the direction of climate change due to recent postings. I thought ‘wtf are those?’ maybe some weird kind of atmospheric oscillation effect due to climate change :) Then I scrolled down and read on..

    The image prompted me to look for some images of Earth I was shown at school during the 70’s, the Apollo picture that you had linked to was the one I remember most.

    What strikes me about the difference between the two images of Earth, the new one above and the Apollo image from a few decades ago, is the difference in the cloud-scapes. The Apollo image sees the cloud-scapes on Earth at the time, as really defined, I mean there appears to be more definition and structure in the cloud forms of that time period.

    When I compare that to the new image above, it’s not that the cloud forms in the latest image lack definiton and structure, it appears to me that those nicely defined cloud-banks are less in number than the 70’s image. The cloud-scapes of the new image seem to be dominated by clouds that I can only describe as frenetic in appearence.

    When I was a kid, I remember looking up and following my old mans gaze, hearing his description of a sky that didn’t know wether it wanted to rain, snow or blow, as “a confused sky”. The clouds over the Indian Ocean remind me of that.

    If climate change is legit, wouldn’t that change be represented in the overall structure of the cloud-scapes we see around Earth changing over time?

    Compare the latest mosaic above, side-byside with the earlier Apollo image and look at the structure and coverage of large fluffy cloud banks as opposed to wispy stratospheric looking stuff that is neither here nor there, so to speak. Apart from a couple of cyclonic structures, the ‘sky’ looks shattered.

    Still beautiful nonetheless.

  18. Thorby

    I haven’t seen the Apollo 17 pic but it was probably just a single shot capturing one moment. This is a mosaic taken over several orbits so the clouds may have either moved, or they look that way as an artifact of putting the mosaic together.

  19. Wouter

    What I meant is; if it’s stitched together from 6 different polar orbits wouldn’t you expect 5 of these bands instead of 4? Or were these images taken around 12 o’clock on every location, with the sun directly behind the Suomi and the other white bands are just on the other side of the earth?

  20. CR

    Hey, I see that my question was answered in the actual post, which I missed the first time I read it. And the second. For some reason I can’t figure out, I just completely missed that paragraph above the small diagram TWICE when I read through the post. Weird.

  21. Andreas H

    Somehow the original blue marble is much more significant and beautiful to me. Well the significance comes from the fact that it is a single shot from the Apollo 17 crew and not a composite image of a satellite.

    But if you look at the cloud formations and the coloring I think the original blue marble just seems more beautiful, more majestic.

  22. Just a detail, but ‘Suomi’ is the name of Finland (the country) in our own language. Caught immediately my eye. :-)

  23. Bill3

    Speaking of the clouds… my biggest question on these two mosaic images is how did they stitch together the cloud formations that (I think) should have changed significantly from one orbit to the next.

    @Wouter: It looks like there’s the markings of another band on the far western edge of the image. But mathematically, there should be bands like that, evenly spaced, all the way around the planet if they stitched together an entire globe. It probably has more to do with the time to make an orbit than the number of orbits they used in producing one image.

  24. Messier Tidy Upper

    Hang on, is there really an *east* in space? After all, there’s no “up”or “down” there! 😉

    Also wishing to see more such mosaics incl. one of Oz plus the poles on views – south & north.

  25. Ganzy

    @25 Timo

    ‘Suomi’ is the name of Finland (the country) in our own language.

    That’s interesting I never knew or heard that word before. You have some really great images on your Flickr account too :)

  26. @Ganzy: thanks for the visit to my Flickr!

    I did some googling and there’s a link to Finland in the name of the satellite: it got it’s name to honor the late Verner Suomi who’s parents moved to USA from Finland:

  27. cope

    Playing around with Google Earth to duplicate the view, it seems to fit better from a lower altitude than 8,000 miles, more like 5,000 miles.

    Anyhoo, still an inspiring pair of pictures.

  28. I’ll get excited when NASA releases a ‘blue marble’ image that includes Australia and SE Asia. *So* tired of being the forgotten region!

  29. Messier Tidy Upper

    Great clip here :


    On the making of these images! :-)

  30. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ 31. cope : Hmm.. Maybe its an elliptical orbit averaging 8,000 miles but taken at a point where its only 5,000 miles from the surface? 😉

    @26. & 30 Timo : Interesting – thanks. :-)

    So how come we know Suomi as Finland in the English speaking world – why did it end up with that name instead?

    @32. Rob Simmon : Cheers for those links. :-)

    Is it just me or are the maps in that first link missing all the sea ice in the Arctic? Is that real or an artefact of the image processing – or am I not looking closely enough?

    PS. Would you happen to be the same person as in the “Science Fridays – Creating Earth” video?

  31. CR

    Re: Australia & New Zealand in Earth pics… doesn’t the famous ‘Earthrise’ sequence taken by one of the Apollos as it came around the moon show Australia? If not those particular pics, I know at least SOME Apollo pics do, though they aren’t as closes as the famous Africa ‘Blue Marble’ one.

  32. @35 Messier Tidy Upper:

    There’s no sea ice in those images. Remember that they’re composites. The reflectance data that we use for land is not processed over the deep water oceans, you’ll notice theyre a solid color. One solution is to add separate sea ice data back in. Unfortunatley, it’s very, very difficult to distinguish ice from clouds–the best way to do it is with microwaves. Microwaves have much much longer wavelengths than visible light, so the maps are much lower resolution. It just doesn’t make sense to merge them.

    And yes, I’m the same Rob Simmon. I should mention that more credit should go to Reto Stöckli and the NASA data processing teams than me, since they do the hard work.

    @36 CR Follow my final link from my post above. And poke around on the Earth Observatory, we have a lot of images of Australia. One member of our team grew up there.

  33. Eric Olson

    I do love these views, and as a kid I also dreamed of looking out the window and seeing the world far below me. But given the physics of gravity and escape velocity, etc., and reflecting on cost and bother still today of good ol’ fashioned near earth flight (airplanes) I have a prediction: orbiting the world will remain expensive and rare. It would be interesting to tally up in energy units like BTU’s what it takes to get into orbit, and convert that to miles per gallon equivalents; this should include the energy required to refine the specialized fuels. I am a first time visitor to this website so I am sure there are folks here who will cite technological advances “that we can’t yet even imagine” and etc. If anything, though, we’re looking at more costly airplane flight in the coming years, not less — it seems likely to become less accessible to our children, as cheap sweet crude oil becomes depleted. Biofuels you say and I say “bring em on” but again you can do the physics, how many BTU’s of sunshine captured per hectare of soybeans, etc. You just can’t beat an oil well for cost effective energy.

  34. Eric Olson

    BTW I know rocket fuel (like liquid O2, H2) is not (directly) fossil fuel based. Track back to its making though, you find a conventional fuel a few steps back (electricity from conventional sources like coal, nuclear power, etc)

  35. Messier Tidy Upper

    @37. Rob simmon : Fair enough – thanks for that explanation re: sea ice – and congrats – good work. :-)


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