Worldsmith

The guy who created the iPhone’s Earth image explains why he needed to fake it

March 27, 2014
March 27, 2014

This item has been corrected.

PAMPLONA–Pulling his iPhone out of his pocket at a conference’s cocktail reception, Robert Simmon performs a parlor trick few can match: He shows the phone’s lock screen. Up pops the image of Planet Earth that is familiar to millions—the default image on the first iPhone, which was dropped from Apple’s mobile operating system only in 2012, to the dismay of many.

“That’s one of mine,” he says.

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As it turns out, much of what one might assume about this beautiful image is not true. It wasn’t commissioned or paid for by Apple. It isn’t actually a photograph of earth. And that blackness surrounding it? That’s not space, either.

But the story behind the much-admired image that introduced the world to the iPhone—known as the “Blue Marble”— is worth telling in its own right. Simmon, a data-visualizer and designer at NASA’s Earth Observatory, created the image in 2002. He told Quartz it’s not a photograph, but a sophisticated visualization.

Images of the earth may seem commonplace, but there are actually very few pictures of the entire planet. The problem, Simmon said, is all the NASA earth-observing satellites are in low-earth or geostationary orbit, meaning none of them are far enough away to see a full hemisphere. The most familiar pictures of the entire Earth are from the 1960s and 1970s Apollo missions to the moon.

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The orbit of the Terra satellite(NASA)

 

As realistic as it looks, the image is a composite of four months of light data collected in 2,300 km (1,429 mi) wide bands as NASA’s Terra satellite orbited from pole to pole, and the earth rotated beneath it.

That data was then stitched together and applied to the surface of a digital ball, then modified in Photoshop.

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The components of Simmon’s render(NASA / Robert SImmon)

Simmon readily admits there are numerous fakeries in his image. The atmosphere is Photoshop blur. Some of the clouds are collaged together using Photoshop’s clone tool to cover gaps in the satellite’s coverage. The black area around the earth is not the void of space. It is simply a background of black color that Simmon placed the earth on top of. (This is standard practice, Simmon says: most actual “photographs” of the earth—including the Apollo images—present the planet on a black background).

Without these alterations, the image wouldn’t look very earth-like. Simmon said he based his manipulations on reality, “in the sense that I’ve looked at a lot of imagery to see how thick should that be, how blue should that be.” But, he later added, “It’s more hyper-realistic than realistic.”

Simmon and his colleague at NASA at the time, Reto Stöckli, created the iconic image that ended up on the iPhone in part to undercut what he saw as undeserving operators profiting in the marketplace for space imagery, he told Quartz. At the time, he recalled, similar falsely colored images rendered from older black-and-white NASA data were selling for up to $10,000. Simmon and Stöckli’s image, as a work created by US government employees, was in the public domain—free for anyone to use, for any purpose, without restriction. Simmon posted it on the NASA website and didn’t think much more of it.

Then, five years later, Simmon, a self-described “Apple fanboy,” bought the first iPhone the day after it came out. When he first turned it on, he screamed with excitement and surprise. The image he had created—collected by a satellite, collaged on a Mac, then given away for free—was staring back at him.

Correction (March 27): An earlier version of this story mistakenly said the image was a composite of only two days of data. It was actually four months, with two days for the clouds.

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