The Americas — at night. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

A new space-based Earth-observing sensor, designed to help meteorologists forecast weather, has triggered a new age in low-light imaging of Earth, researchers announced today.

Fires, aurora, fishing boat lights, gas flares, volcanic eruptions and much more is now not only easily seen at night in the highest resolution ever, but it's also possible to distinguish which source is which, even through clouds.

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The new sensor is the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) now orbiting from pole to pole on a NASA and NOAA satellite.

"This is not your father's low light sensor," said Steve Miller of NOAA's Colorado State University Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere. "I think this is a new frontier for science in low light imaging."

Earth at Night, Africa and Europe Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

The range of VIIRS' uses and future potential was presented today at the meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

"It's very high quality data, said Christopher Elvidge, leader of the Earth Observation Group, NOAA's National Geophysical Data Center in Boulder, Colorado. "I rate it six times better spatial resolution."

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VIIRS essentially ups the visible light imaging from 5 square kilometers of the older-generation sensor to 742 square meters. The sensor is also able to break out different wavelengths, which is what enables it to distinguish fires, flares and from electric lights, for instance.

Earth at Night, Asia and Australia Credit; NASA Earth Observatory

The scientists were surprised by some of the things they discovered using VIIRS, like something called "night glow," which is the glow of the upper atmosphere that can illuminate clouds and ice well enough to see detailed visible light features at night even better than in infrared.

"We discovered by accident that the sensor can take advantage of this," said Miller.

In the past, low light imaging has been used to forecast weather, and VIIRS promises to advance those other areas of study much further, Miller said. Those fields of study include the effects of night lighting on wildlife, human health, monitoring black outs, volcanoes, fishing, and wildfires.