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When you look at a photograph taken in space, including photos of the Earth, moon, and our neighboring planets, you’ll notice a fascinating phenomenon; you can’t see any stars in the background. This phenomenon occurs whether an astronaut took the photos in space, was taken using a telescope on the ground, or even when taken by space-based telescopes. When developed, you can see the Earth, moon, or other planets in the photo’s foreground but, in the background… nothing. Not a star to speak of.
Many people have wondered about this phenomenon and how it occurs. It’s especially confusing since, with our naked eyes, we can see hundreds and even thousands of stars when we look up at the night sky. This odd fact inevitably leads to an intriguing question; can you see stars in space? The answer is that you can see stars in space and see them much better than you can from down on the surface of the Earth. However, because they are incredibly far away, they can’t be seen in photographs taken in space because their light is too dim.
Now that you know you can see stars in space, you might have more questions about why you can’t see them in photographs and what stars look like when seen from space. For the answer to those questions and several more, we invite you to read on. We have them for you below, as well as more fascinating facts about the stars and what it’s like to see them from space.
If you’re familiar with cameras and how they work, the following explanation should already be familiar. If not, it will illuminate (pun intended) why photographs taken in space don’t show any stars. The primary reason centers on the exposure time used when taking a picture. Exposure time is when the lens of a camera is open and letting in light. The exposure time directly relates to how brightly lit or darkly lit the object being photographed happens to be. If an object or scene is brightly lit, the exposure time will be short, but if it’s poorly lit, the exposure time must be longer so that enough light enters the lens to see the object when the photograph is shown.
A great example is when you take a photograph on a bright, sunny day instead of taking one at night. For the former, the exposure time will be very short because there is plenty of light, and it will enter the lens quickly. For the latter, however, the exposure time will be longer (usually much longer) so that the camera’s lens will capture the small amount of light in the scene or subject. In short, bright light situations need a short exposure time, and low light conditions need a long exposure time.
When taking photos in space, the objects being photographed, including Earth, the moon, and other heavenly objects, are usually well lit since the sun is shining on them. Therefore, the exposure time is short and, in fact, too short to capture the very small amount of light produced by the stars. You might say, “Well then, extend the exposure time,” but, like doing so on Earth, the photographed object in the foreground would then be overexposed.
If you can’t see stars in photos taken from space, many people wonder if you can see them when you’re up there. The answer is that you can see stars in space with the naked eye and, in fact, see them much better than you can on Earth. Think about it like this; a camera’s shutter speed opens and closes the lens at a very high rate of speed. Once closed, no more light can enter. On the other hand, your eyes can stay open as long as you like and let in as much light from the stars as you need to see them clearly.
Another reason you can see stars better from space is that there’s no pollution or atmosphere to block the stars’ light like here on Earth. Plus, there’s no “light pollution” either. Light pollution is caused by hundreds of thousands of artificial lights shining at night, so many that they cause the night sky near to us to be too bright for starlight to pass through and reach our eyes: a phenomenon called “skyglow.” For those reasons, seeing the stars from space is possible and much better than on Earth.
Jack D. Fischer posted a video on Twitter in 2017 showing the Milky way from the ISS, and it was, in a word, breathtaking. Again, while there is a common misconception that you can’t see stars in space because they never show up in space-based photos, they’re more easily visible than when looking at them from the Earth’s surface.
Can you guess why Fischer was able to capture the stars in his video? Hint: if you said, “Because of the longer exposure time provided by taking a video,” you are 100% correct!
The conspiracy theories started flying in the first few days after July 16, 1969. That’s the day Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, two American astronauts, made humanity’s famous first moon landing and their “giant leap for mankind.” According to many, however, this incredible human feat never occurred and was a massive hoax that pulled the wool over the entire world’s eyes. Some people today still believe that Armstrong and Aldrin never even left Earth, let alone stood on the moon’s surface.
Why bring this up in today’s article? Because one of the major theories behind this conspiracy revolves around the astronauts’ photographs on the moon. There are no stars in sight in any of them, only deep, black, unforgiving space. For many, the lack of stars is the ultimate “giveaway” that the moon landing was faked.
The astronauts used a very fast shutter speed to avoid overexposure; thus, the dimly lit stars in the background weren’t visible. Interestingly, several other photographic phenomena are also cited as proof of the moon landing being faked, including that shadows in some pictures weren’t parallel. Those, too, have been proven wrong repeatedly, with simple explanations that even a layperson can understand. In short, when it comes to the moon landing conspiracy theory, you can consider it debunked.
One of the reasons we can’t see stars during the day on Earth is that the intense light from the sun blocks their light from reaching our eyes. The same thing happened on the moon, and, in fact, seeing stars was even more problematic for Apollo astronauts as they were always on the “bright side” of the moon and had the sun’s full light shining down upon them. However, Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong said that if he stood in the shadow of the lunar lander (their spaceship), he could see some stars as the lander blocked out some of the sunshine.
For years many people have been under the false impression that you can’t see stars when you’re in space, mainly because they don’t show up in photographs. The opposite is true; you can see stars in space and see them much better and brighter than you can from down here on Earth. We hope our article has opened your eyes and camera lenses about why stars don’t appear in space photos.
Featured Image Credit: Justin W, Unsplash
Greg Iacono is a self-taught writer and former chiropractor who, ironically, retired early due to back problems. He now spends his time writing scintillating content on a wide variety of subjects. Greg is also a well-known video script writer known for his ability to take a complex subject and make it accessible for the layperson.
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