Artist Inga Nielsen made this digital composition, called ‘Hideaway’, years ago. It has gone viral with the caption ‘Sunset at the North Pole’ ever since. It is not a real photo. Image credit:
Gate-To-Nowhere of DeviantArt.

Sorry, Internet, Some Of Your Favorite Space Pictures Are Fakes

But there are resources, tips, and telltale signs to keep you from being duped.


“Some people think that the truth can be hidden with a little cover-up and decoration. But as time goes by, what is true is revealed, and what is fake fades away.” –Ismail Haniyeh

Space, the skies and the Universe offer beautiful sights, but for some people that just isn’t enough.

Oftentimes, the key to spotting a fake is to look for different levels-of-details between different parts of the image. Or, alternatively, for a reflected moon to appear in front of the trees. Image credit: Taken from Twitter account TheWorldStories.

Sometimes, natural landscapes are artificially enhanced, Photoshopped, or layered with fake astronomical additions.

The Space Shuttle Atlantis, as photographed on the launch pad by NASA, appears poking through a completely unrelated image of the cloud-tops. Image credit: Richard Silvera (clouds and photo manipulation).

Other times, the worst offense is an incredibly misleading caption, turning an illustration or simulation into a big lie.

The internet has sent this image viral with a caption that it is a rainbow cloud over the Himalayas. In reality, it’s a computer generated 3D render known as ‘The Ruins’. Image credit: Repawnd on DeviantArt.

Fortunately, there are some telltale signs you can look for to help you spot a fake from a mile away.

Look, it’s everyone’s favorite lunar Rover! The angles of the shadows on the Moon and the illuminated portion of the Earth in the sky clearly don’t line up. Also, the dog is photoshopped. Image credit: NASA / manipulator unknown.

Some simply have unnatural colors added: there are no pink or purple stars.

An act of creative photography involves real star trails that have then been artificially colorized and manipulated. One clue? There are no purple, no green, no indigo/navy, and certainly no pink stars. Image credit: Justin Ng.
A computer-generated star cluster with a fireworks display superimposed over it, then passed off as a bona fide nebula in space. Image credit: Twitter account @BestOfGalaxies.

Others show very bright and very faint objects, like daylight and stars, together in the same picture.

This ‘Milky Way eclipse’ photo has gone viral, but is not a photo at all. Rather, there are elements of the Milky Way from the European Southern Observatory layered into this Terragen 2 piece of digital artwork, which is not representative of any real view someone in this Universe would see. Image credit: A4size-ska of deviantArt.

Others use elements of real (often famous) photos, but surreptitiously combine them with additional elements.

The moon is too large, the Milky Way is too faint to be seen (and shouldn’t be curved), and the shadows on Earth and the phase of the Moon don’t line up. Conclusion? Fake! Image credit: NASA / other sources unknown.

If you recognize the originals, the fakery becomes even more obvious.

The original source of the ‘Earth’ portion of the image: from the International Space Station. Even the clouds line up! Image credit: NASA / Expedition 7.

The direction of the light needs to be consistent, and shadows/reflections don’t always line up.

Many viral image-sharing accounts display a mix of real-and-fake astronomy photos, like this so-called ‘Milky Way over Ireland’, which shows a real lighthouse in Ireland as viewed in the SE direction, and a real view of the Milky Way, viewed in the SW direction, artificially stitched together. Image credit: Twitter account @StarGazerPH0T0S.

Some fakes are very good, and require an expert eye and attention-to-detail to spot.

This viral photo of planets as seen from Mars was not taken by the Spirit Rover, as it’s often credited to be, but was computer generated by the software Stellarium. The compass heading ‘NE’ is visible in the lower-left of the image. Image credit: Stellarium.

Others are obvious.

If you’re going to show a beautiful picture of the Aurora Borealis reflected in a lake, you probably want to make sure that the ‘reflected lake’ image actually reflects the landscape, not a different landscape that you stole it from! Image credit: Amazlng Pictures on Twitter / the Telegraph.

Others display unrealistic skyscapes that could never occur in real life.

Often, unrealistic but beautiful skyscapes like this can be created by combining two real photos, like one of the Pyramids and one of a distant galaxy, together with a digital tool like Photoshop. Image credit: Unknown compositor.
The above composite, for example, is a real picture of the pyramids at Giza, overlaid with an astronomical nightscape and the distant galaxy NGC 3190. Image credit: Rom of flickr (L); Hubble Legacy Archive, ESA, NASA w/ Processing by Robert Gendler (R).

By far the most common fake is to add an extra, often too-large moon.

The Chrysler building as viewed from the Empire State building is real. But the added fake moon is four times too large for this perspective. Image credit: Twitter account Globe_Pics.

Still, not every beautiful, spectacular shot is a fake.

This intricate shot of a person framed by an annular eclipse was set up hours in advance by Colleen Pinski and taken with a zoom lens at a very precise moment during the 2012 annular eclipse. Image credit: Colleen Pinski / Caters News.

Twitter accounts FakeAstroPix and PicPedant always tell the difference.

Twitter accounts @FakeAstropix and @PicPedant are some of the best out there at helping you tell real from fake astro pics… and they take requests. Image credit: Screenshots from Twitter.

Mostly Mute Monday tells the story of an astronomical object, category or phenomenon in visuals, pictures, and no more than 200 words.

Starts With A Bang is now on Forbes, and republished on Medium thanks to our Patreon supporters. Ethan has authored two books, Beyond The Galaxy, and Treknology: The Science of Star Trek from Tricorders to Warp Drive.

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