This incredible photograph — available in full from here — was taken by NASA’s National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System Preparatory Project (NPP), and is the first image produced by its Visible Infrared Imager Radiometer Suite (VIIRS). The satellite is loaded with a number of systems designed to analyze the planet, for looking at infrared, microwaves, temperature, ozone, clouds, and radiant energy, and the VIIRS is a piece that can record across a wide variety of spectra, including visible light.
The first pass of the VIIRS was on November 21st, and a team at the Space Science and Engineering Center, University of Wisconsin–Madison compiled the RGB channels of data together to create the image above. The lens on this machine has a 19.1 cm aperture and 114 cm focal length, and is capable of resolving detail down to 0.65 km, which accounts for the stunning detail on the photo.
The image that it produced is jaw dropping, but in many ways the least of what this satellite can do — much of the research it’s going to provide will come from analyzing the other data provided, which might not give such a pretty picture, but will prove invaluable for studying our planet.