Earth at Night Imagery

Dazzling photographs and images from space of our planet’s nightlights have captivated public attention for decades. In such images, patterns are immediately seen based on the presence or absence of light: a distinct coastline, bodies of water recognizable by their dark silhouettes, and the faint tendrils of roads and highways emanating from the brilliant blobs of light that are our modern, well-lit cities.


For nearly 25 years, satellite images of Earth at night have served as a fundamental research tool, while also stoking public curiosity. These images paint an expansive and revealing picture, showing how natural phenomena light up the darkness and how humans have illuminated and shaped the planet in profound ways since the invention of the light bulb 140 years ago.

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Earth at Night

imagery showing natural and human-caused nocturnal illumination
  • Vintage Photos of Earth at Night—NASA’s Mercury-Atlas Mission
    2020.02.12
    Scientists have observed Earth’s nightlights for more than four decades. Shown here, the photograph on the left was taken from NASA’s unmanned Mercury-Atlas 4 (MA-4) mission on September 13, 1961. High clouds (white) are mixed with Earth’s nightlights (yellow) on the right-hand side of the image, with Earth’s horizon on the left-hand side. The handwritten annotation at the top (that appears backwards in that photo) indicates this was the 348th photograph taken on the MA-4 mission. The photograph on the right, taken by MA-4, number 349, depicts an even darker scene of Earth at night. The white line in this photo is due to a film artifact.
  • Beyond City Lights—Java Sea
    2020.01.31
    The visible lights produced by modern civilization are often obscured by the more intense light of the Sun during the day. However, as this photograph—taken over the Java Sea by a member of the Expedition 42 crew onboard the International Space Station—reveals, at night these “nighttime lights” become visible. To the discerning eye, these lights reveal intricate details of both natural phenomena and the unmistakable footprints of human civilization. The photo, taken on October 20, 2014, captured light from roads and cities, fishing boats, lightning, airglow, and even a few gas flares. North of the city of Surabaya, the capital of East Java province, large numbers of boat lights dot the darkened Java Sea. Many of these vessels are likely fishing boats using bright lights to attract squid and other sea life. According to one estimate based on satellite observations, there were over 500 fishing boats in the area on a single night in September 2014. The same study pointed out that two of the brighter points of light in the area are gas flares emanating from offshore oil infrastructure. In addition to the human activity, the photograph also showcases a few natural splashes of light and color. The blue-white patch on the far left is a flash of lightning, a common sight for astronauts. The glowing line along Earth’s limb—or edge of the atmosphere—is airglow, a type of light that is produced by chemical reactions in the upper atmosphere. While airglow can also be green or blue, red airglow like this comes from excited oxygen atoms at heights of about 90 to 190 miles (150 to 300 kilometers).
  • Lighting Paths Across the United States
    2020.02.12
    The United States has more miles of roads than any other nation in the world—4.1 million miles (6.6 million kilometers) to be precise, which is roughly 40 percent more than second-ranked India. About 47,000 miles (75,639 kilometers) of those roads are part of the Interstate Highway System, established by President Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s. The country also has 127,000 miles (204,000 kilometers) of railroad tracks and about 25,000 miles (40,000 kilometers) of navigable rivers and canals (not including the Great Lakes). The imprint of that transportation web becomes easy to see at night. The VIIRS DNB on the Suomi NPP satellite acquired this nighttime view of the continental United States on October 1, 2013. The roadway map traces the path of the major interstate highways, railroads, and rivers of the United States. Comparing the two images, you quickly see how the cities and settlements align with the transportation corridors. In the early days of the republic, post roads and toll roads for horse-drawn carts and carriages were built to connect eastern cities like Boston, New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, though relatively few travelers made the long, unlit journeys. Railroads became the dominant transportation method for people and cargo in the middle of the nineteenth century. Eventually, cars and trucks became the dominant form of transportation in the United States. Drivers then needed roads and lighting to keep them safe on those roads. As the Nation grew in the twentieth century, the development of new cities and suburbs often conformed to the path of the interstate highways, adding light along the paths between the cities. Over the years, the length of navigable rivers has been a constant, as is their relative lack of light. Even today the only light seems to be the occasional port cities along riverbanks and the light of ships themselves.
  • Improvements in ISS Photography—Northeastern United States
    2020.01.31
    This pair of photographs, centered on New York City in the northeastern United States, shows improvements in camera technology used on the International Space Station over a 14-year time period. The image on the left was taken on January 18, 2003, with a Nikon D1 digital camera (3 megapixels), while the image on the right was taken on January 10, 2017, with a Nikon D4 digital camera (16 megapixels).
  • Nighttime Panorama—Pakistan’s Indus River Valley
    2020.01.31
    An astronaut onboard the International Space Station took this nighttime panorama while looking north across Pakistan’s Indus River valley. The port city of Karachi is the bright cluster of lights facing the Arabian Sea, which appears completely black. City lights and the dark color of dense agriculture closely track with the great curves of the Indus valley. For scale, the distance from Karachi to the foothills of the Himalaya Mountains is 720 miles (1,160 kilometers). This photograph shows one of the few places on Earth where an international boundary can be seen at night. The winding border between Pakistan and India is lit by security lights that have a distinct orange tone.
  • Change Over Time—Chicago, Illinois
    2020.02.12
    These images show the area surrounding Chicago, Illinois, using nightlight data from the Operational Linescan System(OLS) onboard a Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) satellite released in 2003 (left), the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite “Day/Night Band,” or VIIRS DNB, in 2012 (middle), and the VIIRS DNB in 2016 (right). When you look at the images side by side, the OLS image appears coarse and blurry compared to the high-precision VIIRS images from 2012 and 2016. The most readily noticeable difference in these nighttime composite views of Chicago and surrounding areas in 2012 and 2016 is lighting along a recently expanded section of Interstate 90. This part of the highway, the Jane Addams Memorial Tollway, links Chicago with Rockford, Illinois, to the northwest. Since the 1960s, the U.S. Air Force has operated the DMSP, a series of 18 polar-orbiting satellites. Starting in 1972, the DMSP satellites included the OLS, which gives weather forecasters some ability to see in the dark. In 2011, a new source of satellite images of Earth at night became available from the VIIRS “Day/Night Band,” or DNB, onboard the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP) satellite. The VIIRS DNB can observe dim light down to the scale of an isolated highway lamp or fishing boat. It can even detect faint, nocturnal atmospheric light—known as airglow—and observe clouds lit by it. Thanks to advancements in sensor technology and improved optics, the VIIRS DNB is ten-to-fifteen times better than the OLS sensor at resolving the relatively dim lights of human settlements and reflected moonlight. Each VIIRS pixel covers a distance of roughly 0.46 miles (742 meters) across, compared to the 1.86-mile (3-kilometer) footprint of OLS.
  • Now You See Them, Now You Don’t—Argentina
    2020.02.12
    Argentina MODIS natural-color image vs. VIIRS day/night band
  • Unpopulated Slopes of an Active Volcano—Naples, Italy
    2020.02.12
    An astronaut onboard the ISS took this photograph of the city lights of Naples and the Campania region of southern Italy on January 30, 2017. The Naples region is one of the brightest in Italy. Roughly three million people live in and around this metropolitan area. The large black circular area in the photo is Mount Vesuvius, the only active volcano on Europe’s mainland. Although any volcanic activity can endanger surrounding communities, eruptive pyroclastic flows of superheated ash and gas are among the most dangerous, moving at speeds of hundreds of kilometers per hour. Vesuvius has erupted on numerous occasions throughout history. Probably the most famous of those eruptions occurred in 79 A.D., when pyroclastic flows destroyed the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, trapping more than 16,000 people. Such historic catastrophes—and the fact that 600,000 people currently live in the immediate vicinity—are why the volcano is one of the most heavily monitored in the world, with several dozen sensors located at many points on and around the cone. The different colors of lights in the scene reflect some of the history of development in the area. The green lights are mercury vapor bulbs, an older variety that has been replaced in newer developments by yellow-orange sodium bulbs. To the northeast, the lightless gaps between the homes and businesses are agricultural fields. The bright yellow-orange complex amidst th
  • Shanghai Growth from the International Space Station
    2019.03.31
    These nighttime photographs taken by astronauts aboard the International Space Station reveal the unprecedented growth of Shanghai between 2003 and 2018. The city of Shanghai sits along the delta banks of the Yangtze River along the eastern coast of China. The city proper is the world’s most populous city. The surge in China’s urbanization began in the 1980s when the Chinese government began opening the country to foreign trade and investment. As markets developed in “special economic zones,” villages morphed into booming cities and cities grew into sprawling megalopolises. In 1982, Shanghai was a relatively compact industrial city of 12 million people; however, that number grew to 24 million in 2016. Much of the growth has occurred in new satellite developments like areas to the west of the city (for example, Suzhou). The rapid pace of development has changed Shanghai’s natural ecosystems. Wetlands in the region have declined due to sea level rise, erosion, dredging, and the construction of water storage infrastructure. The creation of new coastal land—by piling sediment onto tidal flats in a process called land reclamation—has also played a key role. Despite the dizzying pace of urbanization, there are signs that Shanghai‘s growth may be tapering off. Officials announced that they will cap the city’s population at 25 million in the hopes of easing the pressure on the environment, infrastructure, and city services. Nighttime photos taken by astronauts aboard the International Space Station reveal the growth of shanghia between 2003 and 2018.
  • Paris at Night
    2016.08.01
    Around local midnight, astronauts aboard the International Space Station took this photograph of Paris, often referred to as the “City of Light.” The pattern of the street grid dominates at night, providing a completely different set of visual features from those visible during the day. For instance, the winding Seine River is a main visual cue by day, but here the thin black line of the river is hard to detect until you focus on the strong meanders and the street lights on both banks. The brightest boulevard in the dense network of streets is the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, the historical axis of the city, as designed in the 17th century. Every year on Bastille Day (July 14), the largest military parade in Europe processes down the Champs Élysées, reviewed by the President of the Republic. This grand avenue joins the royal Palace of the Tuileries—whose gardens appear as a dark rectangle on the river—to the star-like meeting place of eleven major boulevards at the Arc de Triomphe. This famous plaza is also referred to as the Étoile, or “star.” The many forested parks of Paris stand out as black polygons—such as the Bois de Boulogne and Vincennes. Even the lit paths through the Bois de Boulogne can be seen clearly in the closeup image.
  • ISS Timelapse: West Coast of the Americas
    2013.10.17
    The photographs used to make this video were taken on August 19, 2011 from 08:56:00 to 09:22:18 GMT from the International Space Station (ISS). This nighttime overpass begins over the Pacific Ocean just southeast of Alaska. As the ISS heads to the southeast, the city lights of Vancouver and the Seattle area come into view, followed by other west coast cities including San Francisco and Los Angeles. Local time for these cities is approximately 1am. South of the Baja Peninsula, lightning storms can be seen on the Pacific Ocean coastline, with clouds overhead. As the video continues, the ISS passes over Central America and down the west coast of South America. The ISS passes over Lake Titicaca and the capital city of Bolivia, La Paz, and as the great Salar de Uyuni passes below, the sun rises, ending the image sequence.

    http://eol.jsc.nasa.gov

  • Snaking Along Canyon Cliffs in Haifa, Israel
    2020.02.12
    In geography training, astronauts are taught to concentrate on the shapes of coastlines because they are a first-order visual cue when circling the planet—and often uniquely shaped. The nose of Cape Carmel and the bay that protects the Port of Haifa are shapes that can tell crews where they are. In the daylight image of the port city of Haifa on Israel’s Mediterranean coast, the strong visual line of the coast contrasts with the subtle city colors. The night image shows different city neighborhoods in a way that is difficult to see during the day. The brilliant port lights contrast with somewhat dimmer residential areas. Straight roads of the older residential neighborhoods are easily distinguished from the winding roads that follow the canyon cliffs. The industrial district just east of the port has areas of green and blue lights and a less-dense street pattern. Surrounding farmlands are so dark that they can be confused with the sea.
  • Marine Layer Clouds in California
    2020.02.12
    On September 27, 2012, the VIIRS DNB on the Suomi NPP satellite captured a nighttime view of low-lying marine layer clouds along the coast of California. An irregularly shaped patch of high clouds hovered off the coast of California, and moonlight caused the high clouds to cast distinct shadows on the marine layer clouds below. VIIRS acquired the image when the Moon was in its waxing gibbous phase. Low clouds can pose serious hazards for air and ship traffic, and satellites have had difficulty detecting them in the past. To illustrate this, the second image shows the same scene as viewed by the VIIRS thermal infrared band used by meteorologists to monitor clouds at night. Only high clouds are visible; the low clouds do not show up at all because they are roughly the same temperature as the ground.
  • Nighttime Views of the 2018 Kilauea Eruption
    2019.03.29
    In early May 2018, an eruption on Hawaii's Kilauea volcano began to unfold. Though Kilauea has been erupting continuously from the Pu’u O’o vent since 1983, the eruption took a dangerous turn on May 3, 2018, when new fissures opened in the residential neighborhood of Leilani Estates. During the summer-long eruptive event, other fissures emerged along the East Rift Zone. Lava from vents along the rift zone flowed downslope, reaching the ocean in several areas, and filling in Kapoho Bay.

    A Landsat 8 true-color daytime image from March 27, 2018 shows the landscape before the eruption. Then a time series of Landsat 8 nighttime thermal, shortwave infrared, and near infrared imagery shows the progression of the lava flows from May 16 to August 13. The thermal band (in red) reveals not only the very hot lava, but also cooling lava, which is still hotter than background areas. Shortwave infrared (in the blue channel) can image hot lava through clouds and smoke that block the thermal channel. By August 13, no active lava is visible from space, though the recently deposited lava still glows in the thermal bands even through February 12, 2019. Finally, a February 26, 2018 daytime image reveals the new coastline created by the eruption.

  • The Infrared Glow of Kilauea’s Lava Flows
    2018.05.31
    Though Hawaii’s Kilauea has been erupting continuously from the Pu’u O’o vent since 1983, the eruption took a dangerous turn on May 3, 2018, when new fissures opened in the residential neighborhood of Leilani Estates. Three weeks later, some fissures had become less active but several others had emerged along the Lower East Rift Zone, including a few just northeast of Leilani Estates.

    The Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8 acquired the data for this false-color view of the lava flow as it appeared on the night of May 23, 2018. The image is based on OLI’s observations of shortwave infrared and green light (bands 6-5-3). It was cloudy when the data were acquired, but a small break in the clouds made it possible to image the lava flows. Lava from fissure 22 extends all the way to Hawaii’s southeastern coast and is entering the ocean near MacKenzie State Park. Though it is routine for lava from Kilauea to reach the ocean, this is a new entry point. The purple areas surrounding the flows are clouds lit from below. The animation also makes use of a daytime-image from OLI, with information about the location of roads and coastlines.

    Geologists with the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory are monitoring the fissure eruptions closely. While seismometers and other ground-based instruments can track the underground movement of magma to some degree, it is not possible to predict with a high degree of accuracy how long a particular fissure will remain active or how much lava it will produce.

  • 2013 Rim Fire
    2020.02.12
    The winter of 2012–2013 was among the driest on record for California, setting the stage for an active fire season in the summer of 2013. At the time, the Rim Fire was the third largest in California since record-keeping began in 1932. The VIIRS DNB on the Suomi NPP satellite tracked the growth of the fire between August 20 and September 4, 2013. The brightest, most intense parts of the fire glow white. Pale gray smoke streams away, generally to the north. Thin clouds obscured the view on September 1. On August 20, the Moon was full, so the landscape reflected a large amount of moonlight. The background grew progressively darker as the new Moon approached on September 5. The perimeter of the fire changed along different fronts from day to day, depending on winds and firefighting efforts. On August 24, firefighters focused on containing the western edge of the fire to prevent it from burning into Tuolumne City and the populated Highway 108 corridor. They also fought the eastern edge of the fire to protect Yosemite National Park (outlined in yellow). These efforts are evident in the images: Between August 23 and 24, the eastern edge held steady, the western edge receded, and the fire grew in the southeast. On the morning of August 25, 2013, fire managers reported that the blaze was growing in the north and east. With the fire burning aggressively and moving east into Yosemite, August 26 and 27 proved challenging days for firefighters. But over the next few days, they began to gain control after a series of burnout operations along the fire’s northern and eastern edges. On August 29, the evacuation advisory for Tuolumne City was lifted. The southeastern flank continued to burn intensely into the first week of September. Earth Observatory: Progression of the Rim Fire at Night
  • Fires at Night in the U.S. Northwest
    2015.09.18
    In summer 2015, wildfires raged across the western United States and Alaska. Many of those fires burned in the U.S. Northwest, visible in these images from late August. The nighttime image was acquired during early morning hours on August 19 by the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) sensor on the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership satellite. The image was made possible by the instrument’s “day-night band,” which uses filtering techniques to observe dim signals including those from wildfires. The daytime image shows the same area in natural-color, acquired by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite during the afternoon of August 18. Red outlines indicate hot spots where the sensor detected unusually warm surface temperatures generally associated with fires. Thick plumes of smoke are visible emanating from the hot spots. According to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center, the Okanogan Complex Fire in Washington was among the larger active fires. On August 20, the fire had burned 91,314 acres (143 square miles). In Oregon, the Canyon Creek Complex Fire had burned 48,201 acres (75 square miles), destroyed 26 residences, and threatened another 500. Both fires were less than 40% contained. Meanwhile, firefighters had made progress on the large, damaging Cornet-Windy Ridge Fire in Oregon, which on August 20 was 70% contained. According to a story in The New York Times, fire managers have struggled to find enough crews to battle the fires burning across the Northwest and Northern California.
  • Night Views of Fires in Siberia
    2013.10.17
    The vast majority of Russian wildfires occur in Siberia, generally along the southern border. This year’s blazes have followed the typical pattern and occurred primarily east of the Urals. This pair of images from August 3, 2012 shows fires using two different instruments. The Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP) satellite carries an instrument called the “day-night band,” designed to be sensitive to such low levels of visible light that it can detect wildfires in the dark of the night. On August 3, 2012, the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on Suomi NPP acquired the right image of wildfires blazing in eastern Siberia. The white outlines are the actively burning perimeters of several fires.
  • Fires Light Up Mount Vesuvius
    2020.02.12
    The forest preserve on Mount Vesuvius normally keeps the Italian mountain shrouded in darkness when viewed in nighttime photographs by astronauts or in satellite images of Naples. However, that was not the case on July 12, 2017, when the VIIRS DNB on Suomi NPP captured an image of wildfires lighting up the slopes of the volcano (middle). For comparison, the July 9, 2017, image was taken before the fires began (left). The July fires burned much of the woodlands in Vesuvius National Park, which was established in 1995. The park protects more than 600 types of plants, 100 species of birds, and many small mammals and reptiles. Mount Vesuvius is best known for a catastrophic eruption in 79 A.D. that destroyed the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Its last major eruption occurred in 1944. For comparison, the MODIS instrument captured the daylight image (right) of the fires (red dots) on July 12. Note how the extent of Naples and the area around the volcano are less clearly defined.
  • Landsat 'Sees in the Dark' the Evolution of Antarctica’s Delaware-Sized Iceberg
    2017.08.03
    While Antarctica was shrouded in darkness during the Southern Hemisphere winter, the Thermal Infrared Sensor (TIRS) on Landsat 8 captured a new snap of the 2,240-square-mile iceberg that calved from the Antarctic Peninsula’s Larsen C ice shelf on July 10-12, 2017. The fifth panel of satellite imagery is a composite of Landsat 8 as it passed on July 14 and July 21 and shows that the main berg, A-68A, has already lost several smaller pieces. The thick glacial ice from the A-68 iceberg will be carried by currents northward out of its embayment on the Larsen C ice shelf in much the same way that the smaller, shield-shaped A-57B iceberg can be seen moving in panels 3-5. The latest imagery also details a group of three small, not yet released icebergs at the north end of the embayment. Scientists will have to wait until late August—the end of polar night in this part of the Antarctic Peninsula—to get their first natural-color images since the ~110-mile-long Larsen C rift became a complete break and released an iceberg about the size of Delaware or Prince Edward Island. Imagery processed and annotated by Christopher A. Shuman, UMBC JCET at NASA Goddard.
  • A Menacing Line of Hurricanes
    2017.09.18
    Meteorologists struggled to find the right words to describe the situation as a line of three hurricanes—two of them major and all of them threatening land—brewed in the Atlantic basin in September 2017.

    Forecasters were most concerned about Irma, which was on track to make landfall in densely populated South Florida on September 10 as a large category 4 storm. Meanwhile, category 2 Hurricane Katia was headed for Mexico, where it was expected to make landfall on September 9. And just days after Irma devastated the Leeward Islands, the chain of small Caribbean islands braced for another blow—this time from category 4 Hurricane Jose.

    The Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the Suomi NPP satellite captured the data for a mosaic of Katia, Irma, and Jose as they appeared in the early hours of September 8, 2017. The images were acquired by the VIIRS “day-night band,” which detects light signals in a range of wavelengths from green to near-infrared, and uses filtering techniques to observe signals such as city lights, auroras, wildfires, and reflected moonlight. In this case, the clouds were lit by the nearly full Moon. The image is a composite, showing cloud imagery combined with data on city lights.

  • Hurricane Sandy Causes Blackouts in New Jersey and New York
    2013.10.21
    In the days following landfall of Hurricane Sandy, millions remained without power. This pair of images shows the difference in city lighting across New Jersey and New York before (August 31, 2012), when conditions were normal, and after (November 1, 2012) the storm. Both images were captured by the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) “day-night band” onboard the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership satellite, which detects light in a range of wavelengths and uses filtering techniques to observe signals such as gas flares, city lights, and reflected moonlight. In Manhattan, the lower third of the island is dark on November 1, while Rockaway Beach, much of Long Island, and nearly all of central New Jersey are significantly dimmer. The barrier islands along the New Jersey coast, which are heavily developed with tourist businesses and year-round residents, are just barely visible in moonlight after the blackout.
  • Lights Out After Matthew—Southeast United States
    2020.02.12
    After grazing Florida and Georgia, Hurricane Matthew plowed into South Carolina, southeast of McClellanville, as a Category 1 storm. Strong winds, falling trees, and storm surge flooding knocked out power in coastal areas of all three states. From space, the outages were clearly visible—and especially at night. The VIIRS DNB on the Suomi NPP satellite captured these three nighttime images of the Atlantic coast. The image on the left was acquired at 3:14 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time on October 6, 2016; the middle image shows the same area at 3:14 a.m. on October 7; the right image was acquired at 2:14 a.m. on October 8. Infrared observations collected by the GOES East satellite were layered on the VIIRS data to make the clouds associated with Matthew more visible. Notice how many cities and towns on the eastern coast of Florida lost power on October 7. In particular, Flagler County, Florida, and Calhoun County, South Carolina, suffered many outages. The map is based on data from power companies on October 8, 2016.
  • Lights Out in Michael’s Wake—Florida Panhandle
    2020.02.12
    Hurricane Michael made landfall near Mexico Beach, Florida on October 10, 2018. Wind speeds were estimated to be 155 mph, which made the Category 4 hurricane the strongest on record to hit the Florida Panhandle. In April 2019 the National Hurricane Center announced that it had reclassified Michael as a Category 5 storm with 160-mph winds. The storm destroyed homes and knocked out electric power in the area. GOES–16 acquired data for the composite image (left) around 1:00 p.m. EDT on October 10. After making landfall as a Category 5 storm, Michael knocked out power for at least 2.5 million customers in the southeastern United States. The first pair of images at night shows a natural view of nightlights from the VIIRS DNB on October 6 and October 12. The second pair of images is a data visualization of where lights went out in Panama City, Florida.
  • Pinpointing Where the Lights Went Out in Puerto Rico
    2017.10.10
    After Hurricane Maria tore across Puerto Rico, it quickly became clear that the destruction would pose daunting challenges for first responders. Most of the electric power grid and telecommunications network was knocked offline. Flooding, downed trees, and toppled power lines made many roads impassable.

    These before-and-after images of Puerto Rico’s nighttime lights are based on data captured by the Suomi NPP satellite. The data were acquired by the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) “day-night band,” which detects light in a range of wavelengths from green to near-infrared, including reflected moonlight, light from fires and oil wells, lightning, and emissions from cities or other human activity.

    One pair of images shows differences in lighting across the entire island, while the other pair shows lighting around San Juan, capital of the commonwealth. One image in each pair shows a typical night before Maria made landfall, based upon cloud-free and low moonlight conditions; the second image is a composite that shows light detected by VIIRS on the nights of September 27 and 28, 2017. By compositing two nights, the image has fewer clouds blocking the view. (Note: some clouds still blocked light emissions during the two nights, especially across southeastern and western Puerto Rico.) The images show widespread outages around San Juan, including key hospital and transportation infrastructure.

  • Moon Phases in the Persian Gulf
    2020.02.12
    The VIIRS DNB on the Suomi NPP satellite captured these nighttime views of the Persian Gulf region on September 30 and October 5, 10, and 15, 2012. Each image includes an inset of the Moon in one of four different phases. September 30 shows the Persian Gulf by the light of the full Moon; October 15 shows the effects of a new Moon. As the amount of moonlight decreases, some land surface features become harder to detect, but the lights from cities and ships become more obvious. Urbanization is most apparent along the northeastern coast of Saudi Arabia, in Qatar, and in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In Qatar and UAE, major highways can even be discerned by nighttime lights.
  • Moonglint Near Elba and the Mediterranean
    2020.02.12
    A crew member onboard the ISS took this photograph of the northern Mediterranean Sea and some coastal Italian towns and islands on October 17, 2013. The reflection of the Moon on the sea surface—moonglint—reveals highly complex patterns. The strongest reflection is near the center of the Moon’s disc, which brightens the water around the island of Elba. In these complex patterns, the dark areas of the sea surface can some- times make islands, such as Montecristo and Pianosa, harder to see. The reflection off sea surfaces captures many different natural processes but also some made by humans. North of Elba, waves trailing behind ships make a classic V-shaped pattern. The meandering line coming off Montecristo Island is an island wake, a result of alternating vortices of wind that develop on the downwind side of the island. This wake is the strongest evidence that a northeast wind was blowing (right to left in this image) on the night of the photo. A shorter, meandering wind pattern is being shed off Punta Ala on the mainland. Smoother surfaces, protected from wind, are usually brighter because they are a better mirror for moonlight. The sea surface also displays numerous tight swirls known as gyres. The broad swath of parallel lines (top left) is probably part of the larger circulation of the sea, which usually experiences north-flowing currents around Elba.
  • Elusive Sprite Captured from the ISS in Southeast Asia
    2020.02.12
    They were once so elusive that scientists gave them a mystical name. Red sprites are short-lived, red flashes that occur about 50 miles (80 kilometers) up in the atmosphere. With long, vertical tendrils like a jellyfish, these electrical discharges can extend 12 to 19 miles (20 to 30 kilometers) into the atmosphere and are connected to thunderstorms and lightning. These three serial images, part of a time-lapse movie collected from 13:41 to 13:47 UTC on April 30, 2012, show a red sprite (center image) captured with a digital camera by Expedition 31 astronauts on the ISS as they traveled southeast from central Myanmar (Burma) to just north of Malaysia. Red sprites are difficult to observe because they last for just a few milliseconds and occur above thunderstorms—meaning they are usually blocked from view on the ground by the very clouds that produce them. The sprites send pulses of electrical energy up toward the edge of space—into the electrically charged layer known as the ionosphere—instead of down to Earth’s surface. They are rich with radio noise and can sometimes occur in bunches.
  • Electric Eye of Cyclone Bansi in the Indian Ocean
    2020.02.12
    Though these images may look like they come from a science fiction movie, they are in fact photographs of tropical cyclone Bansi as seen at night by astronauts on the ISS on January 12, 2015. The images were taken when the ISS was east of Madagascar. The dim swirl of the cloud bands covers the ocean surface in both night images. The eye of the cyclone is brilliantly lit by lightning in or near the eye wall. The low-light settings of the camera used to take the image accentuate the contrast. In the left image, the camera also accentuates the yellow-green airglow above Earth’s limb, an atmospheric phenomenon frequently reported by astronauts. Stars appear above the airglow layer, and the solar panels of a docked Russian spacecraft jut into the upper left of the image.
  • Snow Cover in the Great Lakes Region, United States
    2020.02.12
    An Arctic air mass brought snow to communities around the Great Lakes on December 14, 2016. The lake-effect snow came on the heels of an earlier accumulation that dumped several feet of snow in some areas the week before. The VIIRS DNB on the Suomi NPP satellite captured this image on December 14. The instrument can detect faint light sources—in this case, the reflection of the full Moon on the fresh snow. Clouds blur the landscape in the bottom left part of the image. Parallel rows of clouds, called cloud streets, appear above Lake Huron and Lake Superior. These clouds are created by cold, dry air blowing over a lake and accumulating water vapor.
  • Polar Darkness in The Arctic
    2020.02.12
    Scientists watched the Arctic with particular interest in the summer of 2012 when the areal extent of Arctic sea ice set a new record low. The behavior of sea ice following such a low extent also interests scientists, but as Arctic sea ice was advancing in the autumn of 2012, so was polar darkness. Fortunately, the VIIRS DNB on the Suomi NPP satellite can see in the dark and acquired this nighttime view of sea ice north of Russia and Alaska on October 30, 2012. During polar darkness (i.e., winter months), VIIRS DNB data allow scientists to observe sea ice formation and snow cover extent at the highest latitudes and to identify clear water where ships can safely navigate.
  • Airglow Imagery
    2018.06.02
    Airglow occurs when atoms and molecules in the upper atmosphere, excited by sunlight, emit light in order to shed their excess energy. The phenomenon is similar to auroras, but where auroras are driven by high-energy particles originating from the solar wind, airglow is sparked by day-to-day solar radiation. Airglow carries information on the upper atmosphere’s temperature, density, and composition, but it also helps us trace how particles move through the region itself. Vast, high-altitude winds sweep through the ionosphere, pushing its contents around the globe — and airglow’s subtle dance follows their lead, highlighting global patterns.
  • Airglow over Australia
    2020.02.12
    On October 7, 2018, an astronaut onboard the ISS shot this photograph at an altitude of about 250 miles (400 kilometers) over Australia. In this view, stars appear more numerous along the image center where the plane of the disk-shaped Milky Way galaxy extends into space. The orange colors enveloping Earth are known as airglow—diffuse bands of light that stretch roughly 50 to 400 miles (80 to 645 kilometers) into our atmosphere. This type of airglow is known as chemiluminescence, or nightglow. More than just a pretty light show, airglow reveals some of the workings of the upper reaches of our atmosphere. Studying airglow can help scientists learn about the movement of particles near the interface between Earth and space, including the connections between space weather and Earth weather. Airglow reveals some of the conditions of the upper atmosphere, such as its temperature, shape, and the amounts of different types of gases.
  • Lighting Paths to Oil in Qatar
    2020.02.12
    In this photograph, taken from the ISS on October 13, 2012, the nightlights of Qatar show informative demographic detail that is very difficult to discern in daylight images—especially in deserts, where even large cities can be hard to see. The brightest group of lights at image center is the capital city, Doha, with the neighboring smaller ports of Ad-Dahirah and Umm Sa’id to the north and south. (Note that north is to the left in this image, due to the path of the ISS orbit.) Highways are clearly visible leading west from the capital to the Dukhan oil fields, to Saudi Arabia, and to the north of the country where—judging by the lack of nightlights—the population is probably very low. The relatively minor coastal road between the oil fields and the Saudi frontier also stands out. Almost the entire island nation of Bahrain appears at lower left, with the capital city of Manama nearly as bright as the lights of Doha. The difference in light intensity reflects a difference in population: Doha has 1.45 million inhabitants, while the dense Manama metropolitan area has a population of 1.2 million. The thumb-shaped Qatari peninsula, so well-known in Middle Eastern geography, does not show up at all in this nighttime photograph.
  • Shale Revolution: As Clear as Night and Day—South Texas
    2020.02.12
    “Play” is a term used by petroleum geologists to describe a geological formation that has been targeted for exploration because it likely contains oil or gas. In nighttime satellite imagery, the light from the Eagle Ford Shale Play competes with the nearby cities of San Antonio and Austin, Texas. The electric glow of drilling equipment, worker camps, and other gas and oil infrastructure combine with flickering gas flares to create an unmistakable arc of light across southern Texas. On February 15, 2016, the VIIRS DNB on the Suomi NPP satellite captured this nighttime view of Eagle Ford. The Eagle Ford Shale, which is about 400 mi (600 km) long and 50 mi (80 km) wide, is a source of both oil and gas. Most of the oil-producing wells are located on the northern part of the play; the gas-producing wells are located along its southern edge. As shown in the two images of Cotulla (outlined in white in the VIIRS DNB image), the view is also stunning during daylight. In the early 2000s, the area east of Cotulla, Texas, was dry, sleepy shrubland. By 2015 a bustling network of roads and rectangular drill pads had completely transformed the landscape. The pair of satellite images shows how much the landscape has changed. Landsat 5 acquired the December 17, 2000, image; Landsat 8 captured the December 18, 2015, image. According to a report from the Texas Observer, a nonprofit news organization based in Austin, Cotulla saw its population swell from about 4,000 to 10,000 people in just a few years due to an influx of oil and gas workers.
  • Ten Percent of the World’s Gas Flares in One Spot — Nigeria
    2020.02.12
    At night, gas flares—used to remove unwanted natural gas found in crude oil—outshine everything else in the Niger River Delta. In the image of Nigeria taken on December 18, 2013, by the VIIRS DNB on the Suomi NPP satellite, the lights of Port Harcourt and Benin City are dim compared to the flares. The image illustrates two facts from a U.S. Energy Information Administration assessment: Nigeria contains more gas flares than any other country except Russia, and Nigeria has one of the lowest per capita electricity generation rates in the world. About ten percent of the world’s gas flares are located in Nigeria, and most of them are concentrated in the Delta region. The flares and oil production occur both on land and offshore. It is hard to see where the land ends and the ocean begins in the nightlights image, which shows the Delta region in visible light as it might appear to the human eye. But viewing the scene in infrared light reveals the distribution of the flares. The second VIIRS image shows the same area on the same night in midwave infrared light, a portion of the electromagnetic spectrum often used to study emitted thermal radiation at night. In this view, warm ocean waters are brighter than the cool land and cold clouds, making it possible to see the boundary between land and water. The flares shine brightly in both views.
  • Bursting with Holiday Energy—United States
    2020.02.12
    NASA researchers found that nighttime lights in the United States shine 20 to 50 percent brighter in December due to holiday light displays and other activities during Christmas and New Year’s when compared to light output during the rest of the year. These five maps, created using data from the VIIRS DNB on the Suomi NPP satellite, show changes in lighting intensity and location around many major cities, comparing the nighttime light signals from December 2012 and 2013 to the average light output for the rest of 2012 to 2014. Green shading marks areas where light usage increased in December; yellow marks areas with little change; and red marks areas where less light was used. The light output from 70 U.S. cities was examined as a first step toward determining patterns in urban energy use. They found that light intensity increased by 30 to 50 percent in the suburbs and outskirts of major cities where there is more yard space and more single-family homes. Lights in the central urban areas did not increase as much as in the suburbs but still brightened by 20 to 30 percent. Despite being ethnically and religiously diverse, the U.S. experiences a holiday increase across most urban communities—tracking a national, shared tradition. Daily nightlight data provide a new way of looking at how people use cities and the forces and patterns driving energy use.
  • Night Fishing Seen From Space—Thailand
    2020.02.12
    This photograph, taken by an astronaut from the ISS on December 10, 2017, shows the city of Bangkok, the capital and largest city in Thailand, illuminated by city lights. The adjacent waters of the Andaman Sea and Gulf of Thailand are illuminated by hundreds of green lights on fishing boats. Fishermen use the lights to attract plankton and fish, the preferred diet of commercially important squid. As the bait swims to the surface, the squid follow to feed and get caught by fishermen. The same fishing practices are used off the Atlantic coast of South America. The border between Thailand and neighboring Cambodia to the east is distinguished by a marked difference in the number of city lights. Cambodia is less urbanized and its population is smaller than that of neighboring countries. The majority of Cambodia’s population lives in rural farming areas where electricity is sparse.
  • Something Fishy in the Atlantic Night—South Atlantic Ocean
    2020.02.12
    First noted in the late 1970s and early 1980s, about 200 to 300 mi (322 to 483 km) off the coast of Argentina, a city of light routinely appears in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean as shown in the 2012 composite image (left), created with data from the VIIRS sensor on the Suomi NPP satellite. There are no human settlements there, nor fires or gas wells. But there are lots of fishing boats. Squid fishermen adorn their boats with bright lights for night fishing to draw prey into their nets. The boats cluster offshore along invisible lines: the underwater edge of the continental shelf, the nutrient-rich Malvinas Current, and the boundaries of the exclusive economic zones of Argentina and the Falkland Islands. The maps on the right show the locations of fishing boats on nine consecutive nights from April 17 to 25, 2012, also obtained with VIIRS on Suomi NPP. Note that lights appear sharper on some nights and more diffuse on others due to the presence or absence of cloud cover and fog. While not shown specifically here, other vessels are involved: In addition to the fishing boats, large refrigeration and refueling ships keep the long-distance operators working without having to go back to a port. Satellite images like these allow scientists to better understand and manage fisheries in international waters; for example, they can estimate the weekly captures of different species.

Black Marble

visualizations of the Black Marble dataset
  • Black Marble 2016
    2017.04.25
    Satellite images of Earth at night—often referred to as "night lights"—have been a gee-whiz curiosity for the public and a tool for fundamental research for nearly 25 years. They have provided a broad, beautiful picture, showing how humans have shaped the planet and lit up the darkness. Produced every decade or so, such maps have spawned hundreds of pop-culture uses and dozens of economic, social science, and environmental research projects.

    This image of Earth at night in 2016 was created with data from the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP) satellite launched in October 2011 by NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. Department of Defense. Each pixel shows roughly 0.46 miles (742 meters) across.

    Scientists use the Suomi NPP night-lights dataset in many ways. Some applications include: forecasting a city’s energy use and carbon emissions; eradicating energy poverty and fostering sustainable energy development; providing immediate information when disasters strike; and monitoring the effects of conflict and population displacement. Scientists at NASA are working to automate nighttime VIIRS data processing so that data users are able to view nighttime imagery within hours of acquisition, which could lead to other potential uses by research, meteorological, and civic groups.

  • Black Marble 2016 (Rotating Globe)
    2017.04.25
    Satellite images of Earth at night—often referred to as "night lights"—have been a gee-whiz curiosity for the public and a tool for fundamental research for nearly 25 years. They have provided a broad, beautiful picture, showing how humans have shaped the planet and lit up the darkness. Produced every decade or so, such maps have spawned hundreds of pop-culture uses and dozens of economic, social science, and environmental research projects.

    This image of Earth at night in 2016 was created with data from the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP) satellite launched in October 2011 by NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. Department of Defense. Each pixel shows roughly 0.46 miles (742 meters) across.

    Scientists use the Suomi NPP night-lights dataset in many ways. Some applications include: forecasting a city’s energy use and carbon emissions; eradicating energy poverty and fostering sustainable energy development; providing immediate information when disasters strike; and monitoring the effects of conflict and population displacement. Scientists at NASA are working to automate nighttime VIIRS data processing so that data users are able to view nighttime imagery within hours of acquisition, which could lead to other potential uses by research, meteorological, and civic groups.

  • Black Marble 2016 (Regions)
    2017.04.25
    Satellite images of Earth at night—often referred to as "night lights"—have been a gee-whiz curiosity for the public and a tool for fundamental research for nearly 25 years. They have provided a broad, beautiful picture, showing how humans have shaped the planet and lit up the darkness. Produced every decade or so, such maps have spawned hundreds of pop-culture uses and dozens of economic, social science, and environmental research projects.

    This region of the a global image of Earth at night in 2016 was created with data from the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP) satellite launched in October 2011 by NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. Department of Defense. Each pixel shows roughly 0.46 miles (742 meters) across. Other regional images are available.

    Scientists use the Suomi NPP night-lights dataset in many ways. Some applications include: forecasting a city’s energy use and carbon emissions; eradicating energy poverty and fostering sustainable energy development; providing immediate information when disasters strike; and monitoring the effects of conflict and population displacement. Scientists at NASA are working to automate nighttime VIIRS data processing so that data users are able to view nighttime imagery within hours of acquisition, which could lead to other potential uses by research, meteorological, and civic groups.

  • Black Marble 2012 vs. 2016
    2017.06.28
    Satellite images of Earth at night—often referred to as "night lights"—have been a gee-whiz curiosity for the public and a tool for fundamental research for nearly 25 years. They have provided a broad, beautiful picture, showing how humans have shaped the planet and lit up the darkness. Produced every decade or so, such maps have spawned hundreds of pop-culture uses and dozens of economic, social science, and environmental research projects. These images of Earth at night in 2012 and 2016 were created with data from the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP) satellite launched in October 2011 by NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. Department of Defense. Each pixel shows roughly 0.46 miles (742 meters) across. Scientists use the Suomi NPP night-lights dataset in many ways. Some applications include: forecasting a city’s energy use and carbon emissions; eradicating energy poverty and fostering sustainable energy development; providing immediate information when disasters strike; and monitoring the effects of conflict and population displacement. Scientists at NASA are working to automate nighttime VIIRS data processing so that data users are able to view nighttime imagery within hours of acquisition, which could lead to other potential uses by research, meteorological, and civic groups.
  • A Changing Earth at Night
    2017.12.06
    This image shows the change in lighting intensity from 2012 to 2016. The map was created using two separate night lights datasets (from 2012 and 2016) derived using data from the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)-NASA Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP) satellite. Each pixel represents 500 meters (1640 feet), or approximately six city blocks. Dark purple represents areas with new light since 2012, while dark orange represents areas where light existed in 2012 but no longer exists in 2016. Areas where lighting intensity stayed the same between 2012 and 2016 appear white. Varying shades of purple and orange indicate areas that have become brighter or dimmer since 2012, respectively. Scientists use the Suomi NPP night lights dataset in many ways. Some applications include: forecasting a city’s energy use and carbon emissions, eradicating energy poverty and fostering sustainable energy development, providing immediate information when disasters strike, and monitoring the effects of conflict and population displacement. In recent years, India has undergone rapid electrification (purple). In Syria, six years of war have had a devastating effect on millions of its people. One of the most catastrophic impacts has been on the country’s electricity network. Lights have gone out (orange) during the course of the conflict, leaving people to survive with little to no power. In Nigeria, light from gas flaring activity decreased from 2012 to 2016 (orange), largely due to international agreements acted on by the country.
  • A Changing Earth at Night - Regions
    2020.02.05
    NASA’s Black Marble products are also being used by scientists and decision-makers to monitor gradual changes driven by urbanization, out-migration, economic changes, and electrification. These images show the rapid electrification of India’s rural settlements in recent years. Huge swaths of northern India, relatively dark in 2012 night shots, are lit up in NASA’s Black Marble imagery from 2016.
  • Southwestern Europe and Australia at Night 2014-2015
    2015.10.20
    One way to study the spatial distribution, or arrangement, of human settlements is to view the planet from space during nighttime hours. Scientists have observed the Earth’s lights at night for more than four decades using military satellites and astronaut photography; however, the view became significantly clearer after using satellite data from a low-light sensor onboard the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP) satellite, launched in October 2011. The satellite’s Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) “day-night band” can observe dim signals such as city lights (down to the scale of an isolated highway lamp), wildfires, gas flares, auroras, and reflected moonlight during nighttime hours. Swaths of VIIRS data are processed to find moonless, non-cloudy pixels. These “good” pixels are averaged at each location to produce a global image that depicts the Earth’s lights at night. Each pixel shows roughly 0.46 miles (742 meters) across. The top image, centered on France, is a composite of VIIRS data acquired between October 1, 2014 and April 30, 2015. Paris is visible just above the center of the image. North of Paris and across the English Channel (black), London is visible. The relatively dim Alps, characterized by their crescent-shaped geography, are speckled with lights from car headlights and lit roadways. South of the Alps several major cities in Italy are visible with the brightest spot being Milan. Rome is visible in the bottom right of the image. Strings and clusters of light out at sea are produced by ship lights. The second image, centered on France, is a composite of data from the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) Operational Linescan System (OLS) acquired during 2013. Each pixel shows roughly 1.86 miles (3 kilometers) across. The DMSP OLS night-lights data are available starting in 1992, and provide the ability to measure changes in light extent and locations over the past two decades. The image of Australia at night is a composite of VIIRS data acquired between January 1, 2015 and July 31, 2015. Major cities such as Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, and Perth are well lit along the coast. Alice Springs—situated in the geographic center of Australia—is some 1,500 kilometers from the nearest major city. Transient lights—those visible in only one monthly image—are colored red. These lights are mainly from brushfires burning during the dry season (May-July) in Australia’s Northern Territory and northern parts of Western Australia. Aside from fires, some of the transient lights could be attributed to natural gas flares, lightning, oil drilling, or mining operations.