Nightsat is a concept for a satellite system capable of global observation of the location, extent and brightness of night‐time lights at a spatial resolution suitable for the delineation of primary features within human settlements. Based on requirements from several fields of scientific inquiry, Nightsat should be capable of producing a complete cloud‐free global map of lights on an annual basis. We have used a combination of high‐resolution field spectra of outdoor lighting, moderate resolution colour photography of cities at night from the International Space Station, and high‐resolution airborne camera imagery acquired at night to define a range of spatial, spectral, and detection limit options for a future Nightsat mission. The primary findings of our study are that Nightsat should collect data from a near‐synchronous orbit in the early evening with 50 to 100 m spatial resolution and have detection limits of 2.5E−8 Watts cm−2sr−1µm−1 or better. Although panchromatic low‐light imaging data would be useful, multispectral low‐light imaging data would provide valuable information on the type or character of lighting; potentially stronger predictors of variables such as ambient population density and economic activity; and valuable information to predict response of other species to artificial night lighting. The Nightsat mission concept is unique in its focus on observing a human activity, in contrast to traditional Earth observing systems that focus on natural systems.