The Black Marble

Move over, Blue Planet. NASA’s got something that’ll blow you right out of the water. Welcome to Earth: the Black Marble.

You may remember Black Marble’s older sibling, Blue Marble, the famous photograph taken of earth by the crew of Apollo 17. That photo has been used countless times ever since; if you’ve seen a picture of the entire planet from space, chances are you’ve seen Blue Marble. Back in January 2012, NASA released an updated series of Blue Marble photos capturing the earth during daylight hours, taken by their newly-launched Suomi NPP research satellite.

In early December, NASA’s Earth Observatory released a new set of shots from Suomi. The organization has dubbed these Black Marble, a nighttime version of Apollo 17’s picture.

My own first response to Black Marble was to gasp. After the initial shock of their beauty wore off, though, it got me thinking: what can we glean from these images?

One thing that springs immediately to my mind is how vivid the contrast between developed and underdeveloped areas of the world. I can pick out New York City through dense cloud cover; I can similarly pretty much trace West Virginia’s borders by where the lights of its neighboring states end. And then I compare North America and South America, Europe and Africa, eastern China and western.

Another spectre it raises for me is that of responsible energy use. I’d love to see a nighttime map in which the light is colored according to how environmentally friendly it is on average. Is it made mostly by light bulbs that produce a lot of waste heat, or does it efficiently convert electricity to light? Are they powered by energy plants that burn coal or by ones that harvest the sun and wind? How much power is lost through the mere act of transmitting it over old, low-tech cables? I imagine that countries like Iceland and Denmark would do well in this arena, while countries like the U.S. currently less so.

Finally, not all of the thoughts Black Marble raises in me are negative. It also reminds me of John 1:5: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” If ever there were a visual depiction of light banishing the darkness through Creation, Black Marble is it.

For me, then, the images evoke both hope and discontent, awe and dismay, light and darkness. What do they do for you?