Blue Marble: The Making Of

NASA's iconic images of Earth from space date back to the late 1960s—with snapshots taken by Apollo astronauts. The modern "blue marble" images are captured by machines and they're not photos. They're datasets collected by instruments aboard satellites and then translated into imagery on the ground.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

Up next, Flora Lichtman is here with our Video Pick of the Week. Hi, Flora.

FLORA LICHTMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Ira.

FLATOW: And this week, another winner I'm sure.

LICHTMAN: Well, this week, I got to use the awesomest(ph) imagery. So last week, NASA released the latest in the blue marble series, and most people have seen this image, it's of Earth. And they put out a new one. And I was curious how - how this works. I mean - when I first look at it, I thought, oh, that's a beautiful photograph.

FLATOW: Right. We all do, right?

LICHTMAN: That would be wrong. I was told...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: (Unintelligible) Polaroid. That would be wrong.

LICHTMAN: It is not a photograph at all.

FLATOW: No kidding.

LICHTMAN: It is a composite of data sets from a bunch of different instruments on satellites that are, you know, circling the globe. And they're taking data from up, like, phythoplankton content in the sea, and that gives you what color the ocean is going to be. And then there's another instrument that's looking at the light coming off of the land, and that gives you another layer. So these are the - that's sort of how the older blue marbles were made.

The first - well, maybe we should step back here. There's a long history of this really iconic imagery.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: And then you tell on a video - it's our Video Pick of the Week up there on SCIENCE FRIDAY, and you go through this whole story very well...

LICHTMAN: Well, it's...

FLATOW: ...and you tell the story with pictures and such beautiful pictures.

LICHTMAN: See, I mean, you know, I think you could argue that these are maybe the most mind-expanding images in human history or, anyway, you could argue against that too. But I think that that's a reasonable thing to say.

FLATOW: Absolutely.

LICHTMAN: And in 1968, the first one came out to us, Apollo 8, and it was "Earthrise." Do you remember this photo?

FLATOW: Right. That's - I do. I was around then, for Apollo 8.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Well, do you remember what it was like to see it? Was this...

Yes, it was. It was, you know, how - it's the iconic picture where we think of - we watch the moon rising over the Earth right on the horizon.

LICHTMAN: Right. Right.

FLATOW: Here, the Apollo astronauts are circling the moon and there was Earth rising.

LICHTMAN: Yeah.

FLATOW: Wow.

LICHTMAN: Yeah.

FLATOW: This tiny, little Earth, a little blue dot, you know, and you could see the ocean and the clouds and everything else.

LICHTMAN: I mean, it was kind of a revelation to me and this really is a revealing of my naiveté and age. But that, you know, we hadn't really thought about the Earth as that whole - single whole in space until 1968, 1972, when Apollo 17 snapped the full disc image.

FLATOW: And then Carl Sagan came out with his "Pale Blue Dot"...

LICHTMAN: Right.

FLATOW: ...and that cemented the whole idea.

LICHTMAN: Right. Well, I think that was - and that was, sort of, the capstone on it, until 2002, when Rob Simmon, who's one of the NASA people I talked to this week, created this sort of digital 2.0 version of the blue marble and that's what I was talking about before. We had these different layers of data that are then translated into an image. And one of the funny things about this, I thought, was that - in that version anyway - the instrument, the satellite Terra, when they're taking data, there is these gaps between the ribbons of sort of data that's getting as it's collecting.

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: So it's like a little hole of data, basically,...

FLATOW: Right, right.

LICHTMAN: ...between each ribbon. So they kind of Photoshop in some clouds and stuff, which really seemed to bother him. But...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Of course, yeah.

LICHTMAN: I mean, why, of course, but what...

FLATOW: Right, right.

LICHTMAN: ...but what are you going to do? So this is the new image they came out this week, which is just a snapshot. It's not a full globe - doesn't have any gaps. So I talked to Gene Feldman about how you might use science like this and that - you can hear about that in the video too. But the good news is that the next blue marble, should there be one, will not be Photoshopped.

FLATOW: Of course. We won't need to do that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: No.

FLATOW: No need to fill in the gaps. You know, if NASA still got money and they're making - taking more pictures, we'll have another blue marble. So this is blue marble, like, 2.0. I mean, this is...

LICHTMAN: This one is like 3.0.

FLATOW: Yeah.

LICHTMAN: But, yeah. It's like Earth eye candy.

FLATOW: It's beautiful. It's up...

LICHTMAN: It's really beautiful stuff.

FLATOW: It is gorgeous. You know, it's up there on our website, @sciencefriday.com. And you're listening because the story you tell is terrific in how this all came about. But the pictures are just so marvelous.

LICHTMAN: They really are.

FLATOW: I was listening more to the story than watching the beautiful pictures of the Earth and how it was all made. Thank you, Flora.

LICHTMAN: Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: That's our Video Pick of the Week, Flora Lichtman. It's up there on our website, @sciencefriday.com. And you can take it with you on our iPhone or Android app, or download it on our website. That's about all the time we have today.

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