The Earth at Night from Space

The Earth at Night from Space

Countless nights are spent looking up into the sky: gazing at constellations, wishing upon shooting stars, catching the arc of the International Space Station, observing a lunar eclipse, or–from the darkest corners of the planet¬–glimpsing the edges of the Milky Way.

However, only a privileged few have had the vantage point of Earth from space, at night, with tiny pinpoints, long strings, and giant clusters of light glowing upwards into space, sprinkled among immense expanses of shades of dark. Designed with over 400 NASA images, MOVA has captured this one-of-a-kind image in our most recent globe, The Earth at Night (pictured above).

Discovering the Earth from Space

The Apollo 8 mission forever changed our view of Earth. The astronauts aboard the capsule brought back pictures of the Earth from space that were before only ever imagined, the essence of which is captured in our Earth with Clouds Globe (pictured above). Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders said it best, “We came all this way to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”

Scientists call the sense of awareness one feels when seeing the Earth from space the “overview effect.” Named for the overview look one has on the Earth from space. It causes a shift in their view of war and of how fragile the Earth is. It can also induce feelings of euphoria.


Just seven months after the first pictures of the Earth from space arrived, Neil Armstrong landed on the moon (our Moon Globe is pictured above) as part of the Apollo 11 mission. Upon seeing the Earth from the surface of the moon he commented, “It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”

The Black Marble

Many have described the Earth from space as a blue marble. With water covering more than 70% of the Earth’s surface, this name is obvious. However, astronauts and satellites did not just observe the Earth illuminated by the sun, they orbited the Earth 16 times during a 24-hour period. They watched the Earth from space during the day and night.

What does the Earth from space at night look like? NASA has coined it the Black Marble.

So, what can you see in the Black Marble? Well, it is more than you might think. Pictures of the Earth at night taken from space show the lights of small towns connecting to bigger and more populated cities. You can see rivers weaving through metropolitan areas, forest fires and volcanoes–both active and dormant–and blizzards, lightning, hurricanes, and the depths of the polar darkness. Over time, you can also measure population migration and see damage from wars.

The Mesmerizing of the Earth at Night

How is it possible to see all these things on Earth from space at night? Light from the stars and moon illuminate the Earth from space in a way that is vastly different from the light of the sun. When combined with the light created by human civilization, a map of the Earth from space at night appears.

Our Earth at Night Globe was designed from over 400 NASA satellite pictures of the Earth from space at night. The stark contrasts of light and dark allow us to see things not visible when we look at the Earth from space during the day.

During daylight, the blend of greens and blues and brown can make cities and landmarks difficult to identify. Yang Liwei, China’s first astronaut, commented, “The scenery was beautiful. But I did not see the Great Wall.” It blended in. It could not be found.

On the other hand, the Earth seen at night is composed of contrasting colors. The sea in darkness allows boats to be visible. The contrast of colors highlights highways across continents. The path a hurricane cut across land is marked by a swath of darkness where there was and should be light.

The Brightest Spots on the Earth at Night Map

What cities outshine the rest of the world? Unsurprisingly, Las Vegas, Nevada, is the brightest city on the globe. While Europe appears as one giant, illuminated union, Belgium is easily identified as the brightest country as their vast highway system fades into a glow at sun sets.

The border between Pakistan and India cannot be identified during the day, but in darkness the border is a glowing line in the sand, lined with security lights that glow on the Earth at night.

You can trace the River Seine through Paris. You can see Mt. Vesuvius in Italy. You can discover the Canyon Cliffs in Haifa, Israel. How can these landmarks be found in pictures of the Earth at night? They are a snaking line, a circle, or a collection of oblong blobs (that look like cells one drew in high school biology class) of sheer blackness outlined in light.

Fun Facts: Earth Night

  • Earth night is the time between sunset and sunrise. The sun is not visible because our part of the Earth has rotated to face away from the sun. But night does not mean a void of light. The moon, starts, and lights from cities provide light on the Earth at night.
  • The longest night is polar night. Within the polar circles at the northernmost and southernmost parts of the Earth, their night lasts for more than 24 hours… it lasts for 6 months! The poles experience either Polar Night or the Midnight Sun (6 months of day) and the phenomenon switches at the Autumnal (fall) Equinox in September and the Vernal (spring) Equinox in March. The Polar North has Polar Night from September to March and the Polar South has Polar Night from March to September.
  • Different parts of the Earth have different lengths of night due to the angle of the Earth on its axis. The Axis is at a 23.4° angle that causes the Polar Circles to experience Polar Night or the Midnight Sun at the extremes. As you travel toward the equator from the poles the lengths of night and day become more even.

The Wonder of the Night

Humans have always looked up at the stars for navigation, to determine the seasons, and to simply wonder what’s beyond the stars.

The view of the Earth at night from space is a combination of mystery, science, and art. Seeing it grants us a unique glimpse into our stories and interactions with each another and nature.

Viewing the Earth at Night from space gives us a chance to reflect on the history of human migration, to reflect on where we came from and where we are headed. To view the Earth at Night helps us see that there exists a need to come together not only for our common good, but to protect all precious life on Earth and preserve the beauty of our home planet. As the poet Dylan Thomas wrote, “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

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