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Elegant Figures

Annular Solar Eclipse: May 10, 2013

May 10th, 2013 by Robert Simmon

Japan’s MTSAT-2 (also known as Himawari-7) collected these images of today’s annular solar eclipse from geostationary orbit. The satellite (similar to the United State’s GOES satellites), observed the moon’s shadow as it passed over Australia & the Pacific Ocean. The image sequence begins at 21:32 UTC, with an additional image each hour until 02:32 UTC. The eclipse itself lasted from 22:33 UTC until 02:20 UTC.


Visible-light & infrared MTSAT images dating back to October 2006 are available from the Earthquake Research Institute & Institute of Industrial Science, University of Tokyo.

Earth Day and Night

April 22nd, 2013 by Robert Simmon



Earth Day (8,192 by 8,192 pixels, 9.1 MB JPEG)
Earth Night (8,192 by 8,192 pixels, 4.2 MB JPEG)

Credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Robert Simmon, using Suomi NPP VIIRS data from Chris Elvidge (NOAA National Geophysical Data Center). Suomi NPP is the result of a partnership between NASA, NOAA, and the Department of Defense.

Is Animation an Effective Tool for Data Visualization?

March 14th, 2013 by Robert Simmon

I (@rsimmon) had a brief exchange this morning about the use of motion graphics in data visualization with Alberto Cairo (@albertocairo) and Andy Kirk (@visualisingdata) which quickly outgrew Twitter’s 140-character limit:


The increasing use of animation (and 3D) in data and information visualization is definitely a trend, but I don’t think it’s a good one. My (possibly naïve) understanding is that motion in data visualization is great for engagement (nothing can capture the attention of the human visual system like motion), but can be a detriment to comprehension. Cognitive science researchers like Barbara Tversky and Richard Lowe discovered that animations—even “well designed” ones—were often less effective than static diagrams at communicating concepts like the inner workings of a British toilet (I’m not kidding) or the movements of a piano action. Motion may get more people to view a graphic, but they may learn less from it.

Don’t get me wrong: recent work by Graham Roberts (thanks Andy!) and many other designers is stunning, and I love working in compositing and 3D software. One of the best visualizations I’ve ever done—a satellite view of the terminator over the course of a year—is animated:

[youtube FmCJqykN2J0]

But animation is typically more difficult and time consuming to produce than static visualization. Even if it’s no worse than a static graphic, is an animation worth the extra expense?

Alberto also touched on the issue of audience: does the general public understand data visualization? On the web that may not be something we have to worry about. Anybody that clicks a link on the Interent is the member of an attentive public—they’re actively seeking information. An attentive person is already interested in a topic, and is usually willing to do the mental work to understand what they’re looking at. (Jon Miller pioneered the concept of attentive publics in his 1983 book, The American People and Science policy: The Role of Public Attitudes in the Policy Process.)

Data visualization is a young field, however, and perhaps we’ll learn how to make beautiful, effective animations quickly & inexpensively. Right now, however, perhaps we should focus on improving more pedestrian information displays.

Art, Aesthetics, Design, And Data at the 2012 Fall AGU

November 29th, 2012 by Robert Simmon

I’ll be speaking at the upcoming Fall AGU in San Francsico Tuesday morning—8:15 a.m. December 4, room 104 Moscone South. PA21B. Communication of Science Through Art: A Raison d’Etre for Interdisciplinary Collaboration I. (I know, it’s early, but Blue Bottle coffee is close to Moscone Center.)

Art, Aesthetics, Design, And Data: Reaching The Public Through Scientific Visualization

The primary challenge in science communication is attracting a broad audience while maintaining technical accuracy. Scientific topics are often and reflexively considered boring, dry, or difficult by non-scientists. One way to overcome this hurdle and gain the public’s attention is through beautiful and striking imagery. Imaging techniques borrowed from art and design can generate interest in technical or abstract concepts.

NASA’s Earth Observatory routinely uses imagery to communicate current Earth science research. Earth Observatory designers collaborate with NASA scientists to produce imagery using the principles of data visualization. Curiously, the popularity of images tends to be inversely correlated with the scientific content. Simple photographs and illustrations tend to be viewed more often, and more widely shared, than maps and graphs. However, maps of tree density and melt on the Greenland ice sheet are among the most popular images published on the Earth Observatory. These graphics share some features both with each other and our most-viewed natural-color images: clear, relatable themes, intuitive color palettes, and a clean aesthetic. These similarities may explain their success, and provide a roadmap for future data-rich visualizations that engage viewers while communicating complex science.

Please stop by. In addition, I’ve spent the past few weeks putting together imagery for a NASA/NOAA press conference Wednesday morning about a new, very cool sensor on the Suomi NPP satellite, and I’ll be on-hand to answer questions afterwards.

Earth at Night
Wednesday, 5 December
10:30 a.m.

A new cloud-free view of the entire Earth at Night, courtesy of a joint NASA-NOAA satellite
program called Suomi NPP, will be unveiled at the press conference. This image is an order of
magnitude more detailed than the wildly popular earlier Earth at Night image, and reveals new
information scientists are using to study meteorology, natural and human-caused fires, fishing
boats, human settlement, urbanization and more. Scientists will discuss the advancements now
possible with these new images and detail a few examples of the features mentioned above – plus
present images of Earth on moonless nights, lit only by “airglow” and starlight, as well as the
vast difference moonlight makes on the Earth’s surface.

James Gleason, NASA Suomi NPP project scientist, NASA Goddard, Greenbelt, Maryland, USA;
Christopher Elvidge, lead of the Earth Observation Group, NOAA’s National Geophysical Data Center in Boulder, Colorado, USA;
Steve Miller, senior research scientist and deputy director of the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere (CIRA), Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado, USA

Sessions: A54F, IN33C

If you’re interested I’ll be sending out some of my impressions of the meeting via Twitter: @rsimmon hashtag #AGU12
I’d also love to meet any Earth Observatory readers who are attending—I’ll try to hang around after each of these sessions, or you can send a message through the Earth Observatory contact form:

Be sure to pick the “Design Feedback” topic (otherwise it won’t go to me, but to our harried developer), and leave your email address.

Odds & Ends: Batu Tara Volcano Emits a Wispy Plume

June 26th, 2012 by Robert Simmon

Active since 2006, Batu Tara continues to puff away. A thin volcanic plume streams northwest from the cloud-shrouded volcano. The Advanced Land Imager (ALI) aboard the Earth Observing-1 (EO-1) satellite collected this natural-color image on June 21, 2012.

NASA image By Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon using EO-1 ALI data.

Tree Biomass Map Featured on Co.DESIGN

February 28th, 2012 by Robert Simmon

Last month it was Science Friday, this month it’s Co.DESIGN: NASA Creates Insanely High-Res Map Of America’s Trees, And Offers A Lesson In Information Design. Tim Maly describes our map of tree biomass in the U.S. (based on an exquisite data set from Woods Hole Research Center), and lets me rant a bit about color palettes and data visualization.

Science Friday Explains the Blue Marble

February 7th, 2012 by Robert Simmon

Last week, Flora Lichtman of Science Friday put together a short video about the views of Earth NASA has produced over the years. She began with the famous Earthrise photo taken by the crew of Apollo 8, then interviewed me and NASA scientist Gene Feldman. We discussed the differences between photographs and data visualizations, and the craftsmanship that went into the 2002 Blue Marble. There’s even an audio clip from the late Carl Sagan, describing the Pale Blue Dot image from Voyager 1. All spurred by global imagery from the new Suomi NPP satellite.

AGU Fall Meeting, 2011

December 2nd, 2011 by Robert Simmon

Along with half the Earth scientists at NASA, I’ll be at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting next week. If you’re interested in getting together to talk scientific visualization, drop a note in the comments, or stop by my poster: Methods to Enhance Climate Change Imagery for Communication (5 MB PDF). It’s got a few before/after examples of imagery from NASA press releases and the IPCC showing a better way of presenting the information (in my opinion).

U11B: Effectively Communicating Climate Science (How to Address Related Issues)
December 5, 2011
8:00 a.m.–12:20 p.m. (good thing I’ll still be on East Coast time).
Halls A-C (Moscone South)

Here’s more info on the session, and the oral presentation in the afternoon.

I’ll also be at Communicating Your Science: Panel and Workshops on Sunday, and at the social media soiree Mondy evening (6:00–8:00 p.m. InterContinental Ballroom C). Hope to see you there!

A Muddy Chesapeake Bay

September 16th, 2011 by Robert Simmon

Callan Bentley of Mountain Beltway posted a photo of the Chesapeake that’s a nice complement to the view from space we published last night. I live in the Anacostia River watershed, which feeds into the Chesapeake, and all the nearby streams have been brown since Hurricane Irene hit three weeks ago. The Bay is probably going to be muddy for a while.

You can see how things progress with twice-daily satellite views of the Bay via the image “subset” centered on the Chesapeake Lighthouse. Unfortunately, it’s been cloudy the past few days, but there’s a chance there will be a clear shot by early next week—the forecast for Monday is “mostly sunny.”

Odds and Ends: Nabro Volcano and Texas Wildifres

September 15th, 2011 by Robert Simmon


Two more images that don’t quite fit on the main site: Nabro Volcano and the Riley Road Fire near Houston.

Nabro VolcanoNabro VolcanoThis long-dormant Eritrean volcano began erupting in June, but it’s so remote (at least for western media and scientists) that there’s been no news from the area for months. Unfortunately it’s often been cloudy, so we haven’t gotten any good satellite imagery, either. The best recent imagery is this false-color image (vegetation is red), which shows activity has ceased, although there may be a slight hint of gas emissions near the vent. We’re still trying for better imagery, and will post anything we get in our Volcanoes and Earthquakes section.

Riley Road FireCloser to NASA’s home is this photograph from last week of smoke from the Riley Road Fire, which burned 18,960 acres (7,670 hectares) near Houston, Texas (visible in the upper right corner). It was taken by an astronaut aboard the International Space Station, who could probably see his (the Expedition 28 crew is all male) house at the time.

Credit for the Nabro Volcano image goes to the the NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team, and credit for the Riley Road Fire to the Image Science and Analysis Laboratory, NASA-Johnson Space Center.