I'm continually amazed by what people are able to do with technology like smartphones. Last month, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory released Earth Now, an app featuring a 3D Earth model with different visualization layers of Earth's "vital signs". As with most things nowadays, you can swipe and pinch your way around the app.

Earth Now pulls its image sets from the MODIS (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer) instrument on the Aqua and Terra satellite platforms, which measure terrestrial, atmospheric, and ocean conditions. Seven data layers are currently available in the app: carbon dioxide concentrations, ozone, carbon monoxide, atmospheric temperature, water vapor, gravity field variations (!), and sea level fluctuations variations.

I've been playing around with it, and I'm impressed. I viewed carbon dioxide and saw higher concentrations around Texas, which makes sense with all of the petrochemical refining along the Gulf coast. Also interesting, there appears to be a ring of higher carbon dioxide concentration in the southern hemisphere.

Being able to visualize data is super useful, and having it presented in a form where you can manipulate it with your fingers makes it a little bit more accessible. This app seems well suited for classrooms where students can learn about the various aspects of the Earth's climate with technology students are already familiar with.

I do have a couple of minor gripes with the app, though. Pinch-to-zoom could be less sensitive; a small movement with my fingers makes the globe zoom in or out really quickly. A little more friction or resistance in the zooming would be good, along with higher resolution images at closer zoom levels.

These minor gripes aside, the app excels at showing what is possible with technology that is readily available and accessible today, and makes me excited for what people will create in the future. As an example, I would like the ability to show time lapse variations in data layers, say carbon dioxide concentration over time.

Earth Now is available for iOS devices, although the app doesn't appear to support the new iPad's 'Retina Display' yet. I imagine these satellite images would look stunning on a high quality screen in the new iPad. Android versions are also on the way, apparently.

Check out Earth Now on the App Store here.

Update: Aha! I wrote above that I wished for animated data sets. As it turns out this feature is already available. If you poke around the "Details" tab you can turn on animated maps.