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Middle Earth spotted from orbit


New Zealand's North and South Island are highlighted in this 2002 image from NASA's Terra satellite.

The movies based on "The Lord of the Rings" and now "The Hobbit" have turned a spotlight on the dramatic landscapes of New Zealand, and this image from about 450 miles up gives you a wide-screen perspective on a modern-day Middle Earth.

The readings that went into creating the nearly cloud-free view of the Pacific island nation were captured by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer aboard NASA's Terra satellite during passes in late 2002. That's just about the time that the second movie in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, "The Two Towers," was making a splash at the box office.

Now New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson has come out with the first movie of his next trilogy, based on J.R.R. Tolkien's tales of dwarfs and hobbits, a dragon and a treasure in a mythical place called Middle Earth. "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" grabbed plenty of box-office treasure this weekend — $84.8 million, which translates into the best-ever three-day opening in December. (On the overall ranking for three-day openings, however, "The Hobbit" is No. 40.)

New Zealand is hoping for treasure as well: It provided more than $100 million in support for the moviemakers, and hopes to reap hundreds of millions of dollars in tourist trade sparked by the films. The country provided the backdrop for film locales ranging from the pastures of Hobbiton (near Matamata) to the volcanoes of Mordor (near Taupo). The airport in Wellington, which is New Zealand's capital as well as the home of Jackson's film operation, calls itself "the Middle of Middle Earth." Air New Zealand is now known as the "airline of Middle Earth."

To learn more about the "Hobbit" connection, check out this tale of my visit to Hobbiton, as well as our slideshow of film locales in New Zealand and our five favorite jumping-off points for adventures in Kiwi Land. To learn more about Terra's picture of New Zealand, head on over to the NASA Visible Earth website. And to see more views of Earth from space, click on these links from the Cosmic Log Space Advent Calendar:

Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other science and space news coverage, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered via email. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about dwarf planets and the search for new worlds.