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NASA explains mysterious ocean lights seen by satellite

NASA cracks the mystery of a large group of lights seen off the coast of Argentina, far from any town.

Lights in the ocean
The cluster of lights is seen in midst of the Atlantic Ocean. NASA Earth Observatory/NOAA National Geophysical Data Center

It sounds like the setup for an episode of "The X-Files." A satellite records evidence of a mysterious cluster of lights in the Atlantic ocean, far from human civilization. Could it be the reappearance of all the lost ships from the Bermuda Triangle? Could it be a secret alien headquarters hidden in plain sight on the ocean's surface?

The actual answer is a little more mundane, but still fascinating. The lights, seen in dramatic groupings between 200 and 300 miles off the coast of Argentina, have been identified by NASA as fishermen. The lit-up boats are gathering a particular species of squid (Illex argentinus) found in those waters.

The brightness of the boat lights is due to the fishers shining lamps into the water to attract the smaller critters the squid eat. The squid follow the food source up to the surface and are in turn scooped up to feed humans.

The unusual tri-armed pattern of the lights is explained by the shape of the continental shelf, the flow of the Malvinas current, and the location of economic zones that carve up the use of the ocean for Argentina and the Falkland Islands.

The nighttime images were captured by the Suomi NPP satellite's Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite. The satellite's work was released in late 2012 in the form of a detailed map of the Earth at night. The resolution and quality of the new map made the Atlantic lights really show up for the first time.

Researchers studying the satellite night-map have also uncovered unexpected human-generated light sources in the gas fields of North Dakota and in sparsely populated areas of Western Australia. Sometimes it takes the fresh look from a satellite eye to really appreciate the extent of human activity on the planet.