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Reprojecting Blue Marble

July 24, 2010

The blue marble dataset is the stuff of side-project dreams.  If you’re not familiar with it already, have a look round theNASA Blue Marble Next Generation website, but in short there’s a lot of surprisingly high resolution satellite photography of the planet on offer, for no money, with a ridiculously permissive license.  There’s also data for terrain heights and ocean depths, cloud coverage and light emission at night.  If I could be bothered, I’d generate a nice, smooth low-res image for you, but things being what they are here’s a horribly speckled, undersampled image generated from some of their data:

An Undersampling of The Blue Marble Topographic & Bathymetric Image for June 2004

An Undersampling of The Blue Marble Topographic & Bathymetric Image for June 2004

Isn’t it pretty? And it’s all yours to play with, down a resolution of 500 metres per pixel. Heartfelt thanks to any tax-paying Americans reading, as I suspect you’ve supplied the funds for all this – but much rather that than have a Coke logo embossed on it.

All of that said, one thing I don’t like about the dataset is its projection. It’s Mercator, and while that’s very recognisable it means you get huge distortion towards the poles. That’s not only misleading & counter-intuitive, it’s also a bit wasteful if you’ve aspirations to chop it up and start displaying it in 3d – there’s really not that much detail at the poles, why waste megabytes of data on a single pixel smeared out by the projection to be tens of kilometres long? Surely we can do better than that… can’t we?

Well, yes, I expect we can. Carlos A. Furuti has a wonderful site about map projections here. There are many weird and wonderful ways of doing it, but for a first stab I thought I’d take look at gnomonic projections. These are riddled with problems of their own, but for my purposes have a few interesting properties:

  • If you project onto a few planes, with reasonable angular limits, the projection needn’t be as brutally distorted as Mercator.
  • It’s painfully simple – just spheres, rays and planes.  It works just as if you put a strong, point light source in the centre of a glass globe and held a sheet of paper up to catch the coloured light.  No fancy hill-climbing algorithms required, just a bit of basic trig.
  • If you take a ruler and draw a straight line between two points on a gnomonic map, it will actually represent the shortest distance between the two places across the earth’s curved surface.  That’s not true for Mercator (I’m not planning to learn to fly any time soon, so don’t know why that’s an advantage, I just thought it was pretty cool).

So, to cut a long story short, here’s a first attempt at a gnomonic projection of the above blue marble image onto a cube:

Gnomonic Projection of Blue Marble Topographic & Bathymetric image from June 2004 onto a cube

Gnomonic Projection of Blue Marble Topographic & Bathymetric Image from June 2004 onto a Cube

Now there are obvious issues with the above – I’ve chopped North America and Asia in half, Australia isn’t really that shape, and Scotland sadly isn’t quite the same size as Italy.  That said, I think gnomonic projections – which could be used to project the world onto any shape made up of planes, not necessarily just cubes, are a wonderfully simple approach to the problem and could be adapted to take on forms suited for all sorts of interesting tech.  More on this later, I hope.

Thanks for reading,


4 Comments leave one →
  1. Elysia Willis permalink
    February 1, 2012 11:39 am

    Hi there! Fascinating stuff – I am a teacher in the UK and I wanted to ask permission to use the ‘Gnomonic Projection of Blue Marble Topographic & Bathymetric Image from June 2004 onto a Cube’ image on my online assemblies – I would want to make it available so students could print off the image and make a cube from it. I would of course accredit it according to your instructions.


    • February 1, 2012 9:08 pm

      Hi Elysia,

      Feel free to do as you please – don’t worry about accreditation etc. I’m afraid it’s some time since I looked near this project so I’ll probably not be able to help beyond what’s there already. Good luck though.


  2. some dude permalink
    November 15, 2013 10:42 pm

    Their data is in an equirectangular projection, not mercator. The easy way to eyeball it is to compare Greenland and Africa – in mercator they are roughly the same shape and size. Mercator also goes off to infinity before you reach the poles, so you can’t map the entire surface with it. Equirectangular is actually a very useful form for the data set to be in because it covers the whole surface in a rectangle and it’s trivial to read from it in a program.

    • November 18, 2013 7:25 pm

      Good point, that’s embarrassing. Seems I had stupidly confused the two – indeed my code was reading it as an equirectangular projection. I’ll edit the article to be a bit less wrong when I next get a minute to. Thanks again.

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