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NASA's 'Blue Marble' goes viral ... here's the flip side

NASA scientists created this companion image to the wildly popular "Blue Marble" picture released last week. This image combines data acquired during six orbits by the Suomi NPP satellite to produce a view of the Eastern Hemisphere. The new "Blue Marble" pictures were taken using an instrument aboard Suomi NPP, known as the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite. The four vertical lines of "haze" seen in this image are caused by the reflection of sunlight off the ocean.

A week after NASA released an updated version of its "Blue Marble" photo, the picture of our planet's Western Hemisphere has become such a hit that the space agency is coming out with a sequel.

Today researchers at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center unveiled the Eastern Hemisphere "Blue Marble 2012," assembled from imagery that was collected by the Suomi NPP climate-monitoring satellite during six orbits on Jan. 23. Both views of the Marble take advantage of the spacecraft's Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite, or VIIRS.

You're looking at the Eastern Hemisphere as if you were seeing it in space from a distance of 7,918 miles (12,742 kilometers). NASA says the four vertical lines of "haze" visible in this image are due to the reflection of sunlight off the ocean during Suomi NPP's orbital passes.

NASA spokeswoman Rebecca Roth said the folks at Goddard were tickled to find out that last week's "Blue Marble" picture was so quick to go viral on the space center's Flickr site. "We were curious about its popularity on Flickr compared to other images, and came across a number of articles on the 'Situation Room' photo ... and were surprised at our findings," she wrote in an email.

Last year, TechCrunch reported that the "Situation Room" photo, which shows Obama administration officials gathered at the White House during the operation to hunt down Osama bin Laden, ranked as one of the most widely seen photos on Flickr — with 1.6 million views recorded during the first 38 hours it was on the site.

Roth checked with Flickr's Zack Sheppard, and today she quoted him as saying that "the Western Hemisphere Blue Marble 2012 image has rocketed up to over 3.1 million views, making it one of the all-time most viewed images on the site after only one week."

It's always dicey to make claims about "first," "most" or "best," but Roth told me that "Blue Marble 2012" is getting far more views than the classic 2002 edition of the Blue Marble, which is perhaps best known nowadays as one of the default photos on iPhones. Right now, the Goddard hit parade is:

It shouldn't be long before 2012's Blue Marble East starts rising on the charts.

How the Marble was made
Suomi NPP, which was launched last October, isn't exactly designed to snap beauty shots of Earth. "NPP" stands for National Polar-orbiting Partnership, and reflects the fact that the $1.5 billion mission is a partnership between NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Department of Defense. The minivan-sized weather satellite was christened Suomi just last week as a tribute to University of Wisconsin's Verner Suomi (1915-1995), who is considered the "father of weather satellite systems."

The next-generation spacecraft flies in a 512-mile-high polar orbit to conduct climate studies at the same time it's collecting weather data. So if the satellite is only 512 miles above the surface, how can it produce a picture that looks as if it's coming from deep space? NASA scientist Norman Kuring artfully combined six sets of data from Suomi's orbital passes to produce the "Blue Marble"views.


This graphic shows how scientists combine imagery collected by the Suomi NPP satellite during multiple orbital passes to produce a Blue Marble view of Earth.

Here's how NASA explains the perspective today in a "behind the scenes" feature:

"Using a basketball you can get a good idea of how far away the Suomi NPP satellite is from Earth. Take a basketball that has a diameter of 10 inches (about 25 centimeters) and say that's 'Earth.' (For the record, Earth has a diameter of about 7,926 miles, or about 12,756 kilometers).

"So to get the same view of Earth as the VIIRS instrument aboard the Suomi NPP satellite, hold the basketball five-eighth of an inch (about one-and-a-half centimeters) away from your face.

"The actual swath width of the Earth's surface covered by each pass of VIIRS as the satellite orbits the Earth is about 1,865 miles (about 3,001 kilometers). On the basketball that's about two and one-third inches (about six centimeters)."

More views of Earth from space:

Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding Cosmic Log's Google+ page to your circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.