Can you see stars in space?
Last Updated: April 28, 2023
Since the first moon landing, many people have wondered about the absence of stars in the images taken by astronauts on the moon. And when you think about it, there aren’t many images of space taken from the ISS that show stars in the background. Why is that?
Why can't you see stars in space images?
Wherever you are on Earth, if you can enjoy a clear night sky, you should be able to easily see the stars and maybe even the Milky Way. For amateur astronomers, this is usually a weekly or a daily treat. But what is the difference between what we can see from Earth and what we can see from space?
The absence of stars in images taken in space is one of the main reasons why some people think the moon landing was fabricated by NASA and the U.S. government. But if we put our tinfoil hat down for a second, it’s actually a valid point: if the “sky” in space is always completely black, then where are the stars?
Because there is no atmosphere in space, the International Space Station, space shuttles, lunar satellites and astronauts on the moon receive much more direct sunlight.
Very bright, very bright, “you must protect your eyes” type light.
In the age of selfies and Instagram, we all know how cameras work, don’t we? If you point it at something bright, the camera will automatically focus on the brightest light source (such as a spacesuit, a lunar vehicle, a big hill covered with white moon dust) and will not focus much on the background where the much fainter stars are.
Taking pictures of stars in outer space
If you were to try imaging the stars while standing on the moon, you would need to use a long exposure setting, which means the shutter on your camera will stay open longer, allowing it to collect more light through the lens. This is what most astrophotographers do all the time when taking pictures of stars and galaxies from Earth.
Unfortunately, astronauts like Neil Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin were not sent to the moon to do a professional photo shoot: they had neither the time nor the equipment to take advanced images.
Can astronauts see the stars from the Moon?
Yes, they can! Gene Cernan, the second American to walk in space and the last person to walk on the moon, described the clear view of space and stars on his missions. He noted that during the Apollo program, the moonwalking astronauts were able to clearly see the stars during their extravehicular activities (EVAs) on the lunar surface, despite the brightness of the lunar daytime. This is what he said about his experience:
Then it was the blackest of velvet nights. Stars went on forever for a distance I could barely fathom. I tried to add perspective to what I saw, tried to grasp the full size of our galaxy. The vastness of our universe at that moment was overwhelming.”
There is no doubt that the view of the sky must be incredible from the dark side of the moon during night time.
Can astronauts see the stars from the International Space Station?
In short, Yes they can! There have been many reports from astronauts stationed on the ISS like Mr Jack Fischer (@Astro2fish) who shared the below video a few years ago.
We can see that with the right equipment and enough time, astronauts are able to observe many stars as well as the Milky Way, our home galaxy! They experience night about 16 times a day, which gives them many opportunities to observe the stars.
Astronaut Bob Behnken recently released new images taken from the cupola dome aboard the International Space Station. The main subject of these 4 images is comet NEOWISE, but if you look around you can also see a few stars here and there.
Active astronaut Don Pettit recognized the need to develop the field of orbital astrophotography and started to share countless pictures he has taken during his mission onboard the ISS.
In a recent Reddit thread, Don explained:
Orbital astrophotography involves many nuances that ground-based photography does not, such as accounting for station attitude adjustment, orbital motion, and of course being in a microgravity environment. It makes it very complicated and at times inconvenient.
Orion photo taken during Expedition-6 to the @Space_Station in early 2003. I took this before we had low noise, nighttime-sensitive digital cameras for orbital #Astrophotography. Technology has come a long way, but older photos from the station can still show great detail. pic.twitter.com/nvbTyzULXq— Don Pettit (@astro_Pettit) March 18, 2023
Can astronauts see the stars during their spacewalks?
Gene Cernan also confirmed that he was able to admire the stars whilst performing a spacewalk. Here’s what he said:
“Oh my God, what a sight! Nothing had prepared me for the immense sensual overload. I had poked my head inside a kaleidoscope, where shapes and colors shifted a thousand times a second…I did not have words to match the scene. No one does. Outer space was dead and empty while simultaneously alive and vibrant.”
Naturally, the tasks that astronauts perform during a spacewalk may require their attention to be focused on their work, which can make it harder to appreciate the beauty of the starry sky. Nonetheless, some astronauts have described the experience of seeing the stars during a spacewalk as a profound and awe-inspiring moment.
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