BOULDER – The famous "Blue Marble" picture, the iconic image of Earth taken from space, now has a nighttime companion, thanks to a satellite built in Boulder.

NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Wednesday released a new image of the Earth at night they are calling "The Black Marble." The picture is a composite of images taken from a sensor aboard the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership satellite, which was built by Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp.

The image "shows the glow of natural and human-built phenomena across the planet in greater detail than ever before," according to a joint media release from the agencies. The sensor, named the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite, can detect the light from a single ship in the sea.

Existing satellites can take images of the Earth when it is illuminated by the sun, but the Suomi NPP is the first with sensors powerful enough to take such detailed high-resolution nighttime images.

In the Black Marble image, features such as major cities and Hurricane Sandy are visible. In October, the sensor was used to monitor power outages caused by the storm.

The Black Marble and other nighttime images are a treasure trove for scientists. They can reveal the growth of electric power around the world and fishing-boat locations, as well as flaring by natural gas and other energy development, according to NOAA.

Nighttime images also tell us a lot about where humans are moving and how they are changing the globe, said Chris Elvidge, a NOAA scientist based in Boulder.

"Nothing tells us more about the spread of humans across the Earth than city lights," Elvidge said in a press release.

While Suomi NPP can take stunning images, its primary purpose is providing meteorologists and climate researchers with data, according to Scott Asbury, the Joint Polar Satellite System spacecraft program manager at Ball Aerospace.

Asbury helped oversee Ball's work constructing the satellite's body, building a sensor that monitors the ozone layer and integrating and testing the five instruments aboard the spacecraft. The work was done in Ball's facilities in Boulder.

The VIIRS sensor was built by Raytheon, Asbury said. Its day job, so to speak, is to track storms and other weather phenomena, according to Asbury. It does so by taking images as the satellite orbits the globe from pole to pole 14 times per day, which allows the five sensors on board to take images of every spot of the earth twice per day.

The images are put to use in ways that affect everyone.

"This is a very important mission. Forecasting weather and storms is pretty high priority," Asbury said.

The sensor built by Ball measures how big the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica is, he said. Ball reported in October that the ozone hole is shrinking to its second-smallest size in 20 years, but that is because Antarctica is getting warmer.

The Suomi NPP is the first of five satellites to be built by NASA and NOAA in the $12.9 billion JPSS program. The satellites should be operational at least through 2026.

Scientists need programs of that duration to understand how the Earth is changing.

"When you try to understand climate change, you have to track it over a very long time, and that's what this does," Asbury said.

The Suomi NPSS satellite was launched in 2011 and had a budget of about $1.5 billion, Asbury said.

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