Earth From Space: Big Blue Marble

Initial Publication Date: August 13, 2015

Time required to complete this unit:

This page is under development and may be edited at any time. Some resources have not been cataloged, pending project approval.

3 weeks, or 12.5 hours, or 750 minutes (estimated)

Earth Science Content:

Key Terms: atmosphere, energy, hurricanes, coral bleaching, satellites, albedo, convection, El Niño, La Niña, remote sensing, polar orbit, polar orbit

Unit Storyline

Satellites provide us with a unique glimpse of our planet from space, revealing both its extraordinary beauty and some unexpected surprises. Today, satellites monitor the Earth, providing a systems view using remotely sensed data. These data about clouds, weather, the flow of ocean currents, land movements, volcanic eruptions, seasonal changes, ocean productivity and much more are analyzed by scientists. The results show natural and human-induced changes that take place over time scales ranging from hours to decades. Earth is both a fragile and resilient planet. However, some of the changes captured by satellites -- the spread of pollutants, deforestation, desertification, and melting glaciers -- raise concerns that these unpleasant surprises may have profound implications for the Earth system.

The unit begins with an astronaut's moving account of viewing Earth, our home planet, from the Space Shuttle Atlantis. His realization that "We're on this spaceship Earth, amongst all the chaos of the universe, whipping around the sun" sets the stage for learners to use NASA satellite imagery to investigate Earth as a dynamic system of interacting components in a lab from the EarthLabs Earth System Science module. Next in NASA Blue Marble Matches, learners connect NASA imagery of features on Earth to processes responsible for their formation. The unit moves on to examine in greater detail Atlantic hurricanes, which pose danger to life and property in the United States when they come ashore or pass close by. Our knowledge of these giant, spiraling tropical storms and ability to track them has increased due in large part to data collected by satellites. The cryosphere, composed of all the snow and ice on Earth, is an an important part of the global climate system. Satellite data and imagery collected over time document the rapid rate at which parts of the cryosphere are melting. In a lab from the EarthLabs module on the Cryosphere, learners explore evidence of recent change in the cryosphere. The unit ends with a look at the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle. Understanding this phenomenon is very important because ENSO events influence weather patterns, ocean conditions, and marine fisheries across large portions of the globe for an extended period of time. Our knowledge of and ability to monitor ENSO events has improved considerably with the acquisition of satellite data. After completing this unit, learners will appreciate the importance of satellite data and the use of remote sensing technology in studying the Earth and monitoring changes that occur over time.

Developed by the DIG Texas Blueprints Education Interns and the Central Texas Development Team

Students will be able to (do)

  • Use evidence from satellite observations, experiments, theoretical methods, and models to understand interactions among Earth's systems. For example, El Niño and La Niña.
  • Interpret satellite imagery and visualizations.
  • Practice using Internet-based mapping tools.
  • Analyze astrophotographic images for a variety of geologic processes.
  • Communicate valid conclusions from evidence.

Students will know

  • Satellites are powerful tools for studying the Earth and how it changes over time.
  • Over 70% of Earth's surface is covered by water. Therefore, it is called the water planet. The global ocean is a reservoir for thermal energy. Interactions between the ocean and atmosphere influence ocean circulation and climate.
  • Hurricanes are complex natural phenomena that distribute heat and energy form low to high latitude regions and from Earth's surface to the upper levels of the atmosphere. They can pose danger to life and property. Hurricanes influence precipitation patterns.
  • The cryosphere is composed of all the snow and ice on Earth. It is an an important part of the global climate system.
  • El Niño and La Niña are phenomena with generalizable characteristics and consequences.


The activities we have selected are congruent with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and are arranged to build upon one another. Therefore, to follow the storyline we recommend that teachers complete the activities in the order provided. To open an activity in a new tab or window, right click the activity link and select the preferred option.

A View of the Earth

View Activity

Astronaut Michael J. Massimino recounts his mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope and his realization that we are all together, space travelers on spaceship "Earth" on "The Moth Radio Hour."

Instructional Strategies: Lecture

Resource Type: Interview with an expert

Time Required: 10 minutes

Earth System Science

View Activity

This is a set of seven lessons from EarthLabs series that serve to present the Earth as a system of dynamic, interacting components. However, truly understanding Earth as a system—Earth System Science—requires a quantitative exploration of the connections among all parts of the system: air, water, land, and life.

Instructional Strategies: Inquiry, Modeling

Resource Type: Laboratory investigation, experiment or demonstration

Time Required: 750 minutes for all labs in the module

For this unit, we have selected one lab : Viewing Earth from Space (Lab 6A)

  • Viewing Earth from Space (Earth System Science Lab 6A)
In Lab 6A, students get a more specific picture of the Earth system at the global scale by investigating data collected by NASA satellites. Data are displayed in image form in the NEO (NASA Earth Observations) data visualization tool.

Time Required: 90 minutes

Blue Marble Matches: Using Earth for Planetary Comparisons

View Activity

This 5-E lesson connects the shape of Earth's surface (and the names of the features that correspond to those shapes and textures) to the processes that form them. It also introduces students to how scientists use Earth to gain a better understanding of other planetary bodies in the solar system.

Instructional Strategies: Inquiry

Resource Type: Laboratory investigation, experiment or demonstration

Time Required: 300 minutes


View Activity

Like scientists, students use satellite imagery and visualizations and conduct hands-on experiments to learn about hurricanes in this EarthLabs module. They also explore over 150 years of storm data to find out when and where these storms occur, consider their impact on life and property, and develop a hurricane preparation and safety plan.

Instructional Strategies: Inquiry, Modeling

Resource Type: Laboratory investigation, experiment or demonstration

Time Required: 750 minutes

For this unit, we have selected two labs: Earth's Meteorological Monsters: 2005 Hurricane Season (Lab 1A) and Types of Satellite Data (Lab 2B).

  • Earth's Meteorological Monsters: 2005 Hurricane Season (Hurricanes Lab 1A)

This lab uses a NASA satellite video of the 2005 Hurricane Season to generate student interest in hurricane formation.

Time Required: 60 minutes

  • Types of Satellite Data (Hurricanes Lab 2B)

This site uses a video on how scientists use satellites to study hurricanes and asks questions about the video. The activity ends with an activity that asks students to use what they have learned to interpret data from another video.

Time Required: 60 minutes

Climate and the Cryosphere

View Activity

This unit introduces students to many of the complex issues surrounding the cryosphere and its connections to climate. It includes articles, hands-on lab activities, videos, data analysis, maps, graphs, and online interactives which will help learners to understand how snow and ice interact with water, air, land, and life to regulate and reflect Earth's climate conditions.

Instructional Strategies: Inquiry, Modeling

Resource Type: Laboratory investigation, experiment or demonstration

Time Required: 750 minutes for all labs

For this unit we have selected one lab: Evidence of Recent Change (Lab 5).

  • Evidence of Recent Change (Climate and the Cryosphere Lab 5A-B)

Individual or small group analysis of satellite imagery. Image processing software required. This site shows how glaciers change over time and how the change can be measured using satellite data.

Time Required: 90 minutes

Ocean Impacts on an El Nino Event

View Activity

In this My NASA Data+ activity, relationships among sea surface height, sea surface temperature and wind vectors are used to classify characteristics of an El Niño event.

Instructional Strategies: Inquiry

Resource Type: Laboratory investigation, experiment or demonstration , Visualization (static visualization, animation, simulation)

Time Required: 100 minutes

Field Trips

Studies that examine how geologists think and learn about the Earth point to the value of field experiences in helping students develop practices that constitute geologic reasoning. We encourage teachers to take students into the field as much as possible. To this end, we include ideas for virtual and actual field trips. The former recognizes the limitations of the K-12 classroom setting. Field learning provides a chance to encourage the ability to see features that are important to professional practice. Indeed, many geoscientists report that fieldwork was a key factor influencing their choice of geoscience as a career.

Virtual Field Trip

Timelapse: Watch the world change over the course of nearly three decades of satellite photography

Students watch the introductory animation and can then choose to view animations of other areas of Earth including the Columbia Glacier. This website also contains an article on the project and satellites along with other videos and photos.

Scaffolding Notes

Teachers must develop their own individual plan for how they will teach the unit. The learning activities and educational resources in this unit are intended to complement other instructional activities led by the teacher. Many of the selected learning experiences provide links to excellent background preparatory materials, additional hands-on resources, teaching tips, and cross-curricular connections.

Teachers will need to create their own multimedia presentations, deliver lectures and assign ancillary work to their students in order to set the stage for effective use of the learning activities contained herein. Therefore, it is imperative to allocate time to review the activities and background material prior to using the learning experiences in this unit and to probe students for their prior knowledge before starting an activity.

In addition, although some activities may incorporate assessments, teachers may need to create their own assessments to ensure that are appropriate for the students they teach.

Asterisks (*) indicate teacher resource and background information recommendations for activity support.


The EarthLabs activity, Viewing Earth from Space provides introductory material to remote sensing. There is a link to an article from NASA's Earth Observatory that gives additional background information regarding the history of remote sensing and the physical processes involved in this type of imagery. The teacher should decide how detailed/in depth to direct the students. The activity utilizes datasets from the NASA Earth Observations website. The teacher should preview instructions for accessing these datasets thoroughly before conducting the lesson with students.

NASA's Blue Marble Matches activity requires advanced teacher preparation of the student pages and the various charts and cards used for the "matches." These are best printed in high quality full-color, as they are photographic images for which color is important for identification purposes. The cards will need to be cut out ahead of time. The website has links to all necessary documents, and the teacher guide details additional notes and specifications regarding the charts and cards.

The activities, 2005 Hurricane Season and Types of Satellite Data are both from EarthLabs' Hurricanes module and require the use of a computer for the short videos and visualizations. Teachers may choose to show on a larger screen to the whole class and discuss if access to student computers is not available. On the first page of the educator version of the module, a list of 2005 hurricanes is linked. After completing 2005 Hurricane Season, teachers may choose to select (or have students select) a few to research for imagery examples, time permitting.

The Evidence of Recent Change lab requires a download of the ImageJ software, located at the resource website. Teacher should download this ahead of time.

In the Ocean Impacts of an El Nino Event activity, students use My NASA Data+ to analyze different variables of an El Nino event. The site suggests teachers might download data ahead of time if necessary for time purposes, as collecting the data by hand is a lengthy process. Additional notes may be found at the CLEAN site.

Next Generation Science Standards

We anticipate that students should be able to achieve the NGSS Performance Expectation(s) listed after completing the activities in this unit. However, we have not carried out educational research to verify this.

HS-ESS3-5. Analyze geosciences data and the results from global climate models to make evidence based forecast of the current rate of global or regional climate change and associated future impacts to Earth systems.

HS-ESS3-6. Use a computational representation to illustrate the relationships among Earth systems and how those relationships are being modified due to human activity.

These Performance Expectations integrate the Disciplinary Core Ideas, Cross Cutting Concepts and Science and Engineering Practices of the NGSS as shown in the unit tableNGSS Congruence: Earth From Space: Big Blue Marble (Acrobat (PDF) 180kB Jan31 16).

Additional Resources

The recommended additional resources may be used to extend or augment the storyline.

Nova Earth from Space

Detailed satellite images reveal the web of connections that sustain life on Earth. Suggested teacher use for this video is daily showings of 20-30 minute increments along with the above activities.

Perpetual Ocean

This NASA animation, showing ocean surface currents around the world from June 2005 - December 2007, emphasizes that surface currents are zones of flow in the ocean and not lines, as depicted in most textbook diagrams.

Sandy and Katrina

Superstorm Sandy began as a late season hurricane and struck the northeast late October, 2012. Sandy caused catastrophic damage and loss of life, especially in New Jersey and New York. Hurricane Katrina stuck the Gulf Coast in 2005 causing devastation and destruction to New Orleans.

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