Once upon a bright night

The VIIRS space sensors offer a unique view of earthly holiday lights

Holiday lights in Texas as seen by the VIIRS suite of satellite-based sensors.

This map shows the change in light intensity in cities across Texas and other southern states. Green shading marks areas where light usage increased in December, compared to the rest of the year. The map compares the nighttime light signals from 2012 to 2014.   (Photo courtesy of Dr. Miguel O. Román, Universities Space Research Association)


One of the cheeriest sights of the season are holiday lights. They even look great from space, if you've got the right equipment.

Raytheon’s Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite, or VIIRS suite of satellite-based sensors can illuminate the sights of holiday lights from 500 miles above Earth. During the holidays, night images from VIIRS show how holiday or decorative lights spread across towns and cities worldwide.

The light intensity in these areas is 20 to 50 percent more noticeable around Christmas and New Year. The difference is most visible in rural and suburban areas, rather than in big cities like New York or Los Angeles, which are typically brighter anyway.

VIIRS sensors orbit the planet aboard two National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellites, providing not only a view of holiday lights, but also critical environmental and weather data. The tech uses 22 multispectral bands to look at different phenomena on Earth, including hurricanes and wildfires, and it uses a unique, day-night band to detect lights.

“That is the story with VIIRS and in this case, with the day-night band,” said Amber Purohit, chief engineer on the VIIRS JPSS-2 program. “It continuously astounds people with new observations, like with beautiful, holiday lights imagery.”

Images of holiday lights from space bring more than just holiday cheer – deeper analysis of VIIRS’s data gives us insight into how, where and when holiday lights are used. And it could have practical applications for public utilities.

“These maps of city lights could be valuable for government agencies gauging and optimizing power usage, or even for businesses that may want to project future sales of holiday lights,” said Jeff Puschell, principal engineering fellow at Raytheon.

VIIRS can also spot brighter lights during other major celebrations, like Diwali, known as the celebration of lights, and Ramadan. 

“To see people get excited about something that we have done, like these beautiful images of Earth, is very rewarding as an engineer,” Purohit said.

As VIIRS keeps an eye on holiday lights, NORAD tracks Santa as he goes around the world delivering presents. But could VIIRS also track Santa’s sleigh?

“Not unless Rudolph the reindeer was emitting more watts of light from his red nose,” said Shawn Cochran, senior manager for Civil and Environmental Space at Raytheon. “But you never know, we might see a bright, red light crossing the ocean one day.”

Dallas Holiday Lights
A close-up look of the light intensity in the Dallas, Texas, area, during the month of December. The green dots represent the increase in lights from 2012 to 2014. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Miguel O. Román, Universities Space Research Association)


Published On: 12/11/2019
Last Updated: 12/19/2019