Think you've seen an accurate image of Earth from space? Think again.
Turns out, we've been lied to. Until recently, most images of Earth from space have been composites -- multiple images taken at different times and pieced together to show the full "blue marble."
But now, thanks to NASA's Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (appropriately nicknamed EPIC), we can see a single shot of Earth in real time.
Affixed to NOAA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory, or DSCOVR, about 1 million miles from Earth, EPIC takes a color image of the sunlit side of Earth at least once every two hours, providing a spectacular vantage point for scientists and mere mortals.
"With EPIC, you see cloud structure from sunrise on the left to sunset on the right," Jay Herman, EPIC instrument lead investigator, said Monday at a media briefing at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco. "It's the only view we have like this where everything is at the exact same instant in time, even though the local times are different."
Behold, this was Earth at precisely 1:13 p.m. ET on Dec. 13:
Looks kind of like you thought it would, right? But remember, the data packed into these photos is revolutionary.
EPIC takes measurements in visible, ultraviolet and near-infrared wavelengths, allowing researchers to track multiple features, including vegetation, aerosols and ozone, in real time as the planet rotates.
The height and location of daytime clouds in the above photo, for instance, can help scientists track weather and calculate Earth’s energy balance for climate studies.
Another instrument on DSCOVR measures the heat emitted from Earth and the total amount of solar energy that reflects off the planet, providing a valuable missing piece of energy information, according to NASA.
The data is already promising, with patterns emerging that show that more light is "reflected from continents and clouds than from oceans." Over time, NASA says, "it's a measurement that could help scientists studying how the reflectance of the sun’s energy back into space can impact Earth’s changing climate."
It just goes to show, a picture is worth a whole lot of data.
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