The image was captured by the VIIRS “day-night band,” which detects light in a range of wavelengths from green to near-infrared and uses filtering techniques to observe signals such as gas flares, auroras, wildfires, city lights, and reflected moonlight.
An irregularly-shaped patch of high clouds hovered off the coast of California, and moonlight caused the high clouds to cast distinct shadows on the marine layer clouds below. VIIRS acquired the image when the Moon was in its waxing gibbous phase, meaning it was more than half-lit, but less than full.
Low clouds pose serious hazards for air and ship traffic, but satellites have had difficulty detecting them in the past. To illustrate this, the second image shows the same scene in thermal infrared, the band that meteorologists generally use to monitor clouds at night. Only high clouds are visible; the low clouds do not show up at all because they are roughly the same temperature as the ground.
NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon, using VIIRS Day-Night Band data from the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership. Suomi NPP is the result of a partnership between NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Department of Defense. Caption by Adam Voiland.
Satellite images of Earth at night have been a curiosity for the public and a tool of fundamental research for at least 25 years. They have provided a broad, beautiful picture, showing how humans have shaped the planet and lit up the darkness.