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This Isn’t What It Looks Like…

…Okay, maybe this is.  It’s a blog post!

Sorry I’ve been away for so long.  It’s been a transition time here in the education department of the Virginia Living Museum – lots of changes, and lots of new assignments and different work schedules.  Practical upshot – I’ve had pretty much zero time to sit down and write…about anything.

But eventually, the good folks who manage our website caught up with me.  I’m going to try to get back to writing on a regular schedule, but please do forgive me if I’m sometimes a bit late in new posts.

So…continuing with the theme of the title, allow me to show you this picture:

Looks like the aurora, but it isn't

From Phil Plait’s “Bad Astronomy” blog on Slate, originally from Facebook

Sure looks like an aurora, doesn’t it.  Problem is, it’s fake.  Really.  Fake.

Phil Plait takes apart the photo on his blog for Slate, Bad Astronomy.  Now, this image wasn’t created to fool people…it was actually originally created by some NASA graphics artists to help explain how auroras work.  The problem came when someone found the image, plucked it out of context, and slapped it up on a “science” feed as an “image of auroras from space.”

Lots of photos like this end up getting widely circulated.  Some are done deliberately to fake people out, some are just misunderstood images.  But, with a little effort, you can learn to quickly spot the clues that make images like these obvious fakes.

CLUE #1: Take a look at the image of the Earth.  What’s missing?  Clouds.  In this image, the Earth has not one single visible cloud.  That pretty much NEVER happens.  So right away, you know there’s something weird about the image.

CLUE #2:  Auroras are not that big.  In scale, these auroras would be stretching hundreds of miles above the Earth – actual auroras reach up only a few miles.  Okay, that one’s a bit obscure.  But still, something about the size of the auroras just looks weird, doesn’t it?

CLUE #3: Are those stars in the background?  If so, then the image is almost certainly fake.  When photographing celestial objects, if you’re trying to snap a pic of big bright things (like the Earth), you’ll need a quick exposure – much too quick for the stars (which are VERY faint compared to the bright Earth) to show up in the same image.  Something like that can only be done by compositing (putting two or more photos together) or by graphics artists (you expect to see stars in space, so they put them there).

So…when next you see an awesome space photo that looks too good to be real…that might just actually be the case.  On the other hand…it might not.  The real universe is a stunning and incredible place.  Not sure if your favorite image is real?  Post about it in the comments and I’ll check it out.

If you’d like to experience some of that real universe – join us this Saturday at the Virginia Living Museum for our monthly Star Party and Laser Light Night.  It’s going to be a great one – the weather looks terrific, so come out early to start stargazing with our astronomers and their many telescopes.  Stargazing begins at sunset and continues throughout the night, weather permitting.  It also happens that the Geminid Meteor Shower, one of the best of the year, is peaking on December 13 overnight, so we’re hoping to catch a few falling stars during the course of the night!

When it’s time to warm up, you can head inside to the Wild Side Cafe for hot chocolate and some dinner (the cafe will be open from 6-9pm) or you can come on over to the Abbitt Planetarium and take in a show.  We’ve got 5 to choose from this Saturday:

6:30pm  Star of Wonder: Mystery of the Christmas Star

7:30pm  Virginia Skies

8:30pm  Laser Holidays (full playlist)

10:00pm  Laser Metallica

11:30pm  Laser Pink Floyd: The Vision Bell

All shows are $6 each, or see any 2 on the same night for $10.  Members always receive half-price tickets!

Don’t miss what looks to be a great way to cap off 2014.  And with Christmas and New Year’s just around the corner, I can assure you this will be my last blog post for 2014.  See you all in the new year!

Have a wonderful holiday season!

Carpe noctem,


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