Why there are no stars in space photos? Space Shuttle Endeavour docked to the ISS

Here’s why There are no Stars in Space Photos

I can’t believe that people still asking online “Why are there no stars when the astronauts take pictures from space?” or “Why are there no stars in the moon landing photos” as if they discovered a mistake in a big conspiracy. In particular, moon landing conspiracy theorists frequently point out that there are no stars in the Apollo photographs. Yeah, for sure, NASA staged everything but forgot to add some stars in these “edited” photos! The explanation is so simple: why cannot you see the stars at noontime?

Or, when there is a full moon go outside and see how many stars you can find compared to a night when the moon is not out. You will see the difference. The stars are very faint and most of them get washed out by the bright light of the moon.

The reason why no or very few stars can be seen in photos taken in space (or moon landing photos) is, most of the time, that of the Earth. The body of Earth, when lit by the Sun, is many thousands of times brighter than the stars around it. As a result, the Earth is so bright that it swamps out most if not all of the stars. Sometimes, another bright object that Astronauts try to photograph causes the same effect.

When you try to shoot a very bright object (for example, the Earth) and very dim objects (stars) in the same frame, you cannot properly expose both. To be able to see the stars, the bright object would have to be overexposed making it appear as a featureless white blob.

Why there are no stars in space photos? Space Shuttle Endeavour docked to the ISS
On May 23, 2011, this photo was taken from the Soyuz spacecraft carrying Russian cosmonaut Dmitry Kondratyev, NASA astronaut Cady Coleman, and European Space Agency astronaut Paolo Nespoli to the International Space Station (ISS). We can see the Space Shuttle Endeavour docked to the ISS in the total darkness of space. There are no stars in this photo. So, is it fake? Of course not.

Why can’t we see stars in space photos?

Photos of space often lack visible stars due to several technical reasons related to camera settings, exposure times, and the contrast between brightly lit objects and the relatively faint light of stars.

  1. Exposure Settings: Cameras used in space are usually set to capture well-lit objects like spacecraft, planets, moons, or the surface of the Earth. These objects reflect sunlight very brightly, requiring short exposure times to avoid overexposure. Stars, however, are much dimmer compared to these brightly lit objects. The short exposure times needed to capture the bright objects properly do not allow enough light from the stars to be recorded, making them invisible in the photograph.
  2. Contrast: The brightness contrast between the objects being photographed (like a spacecraft or planet) and the background stars is immense. Bright objects like planets and spacecraft surfaces can reflect a lot of sunlight, while stars, despite being incredibly bright in reality, appear much fainter from our perspective due to their vast distances. The camera settings needed to correctly expose the bright objects cause the dimmer stars to fade into the background.
  3. Camera Focus: Space cameras are often focused on nearby, bright objects, which can cause distant stars to be out of focus. This focus setting enhances the clarity of the primary subject but can render the background stars less distinct or completely invisible.
  4. Dynamic Range: The dynamic range of a camera is its ability to capture the darkest and brightest parts of a scene simultaneously. Space cameras often have limited dynamic range compared to the human eye, which can adapt more readily to a wide range of light levels. As a result, cameras may not capture faint stars when they are set to expose much brighter objects.
Apollo 11 - Buzz Aldrin on the Moon
Moon landing conspiracy theorists often point out that there are no stars in moon landing photos, such as the famous photo of Buzz Aldrin. The reason no stars are visible is due to the exposure settings of the cameras used. The lunar surface and astronauts’ suits were brightly lit by sunlight, requiring short exposure times to capture the details without overexposure. Stars are much dimmer compared to the sunlit surface, and the short exposure times didn’t allow their faint light to be recorded. Hence, the stars don’t appear in the photos, which is a normal result of the camera settings, not evidence of a hoax. This image was cataloged by NASA Headquarters of the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) under Photo ID: AS11-40-5903. Image: Wikipedia

There are stars in space photos

When the camera is set to a longer exposure time, it can collect more light from the distant stars, making them visible in the image. This is why certain images, especially those taken in darker conditions or specifically aimed at capturing stars, do show them clearly.

Or, in some photos, the exposure settings of the camera are adjusted to capture the faint light of the stars rather than the bright objects like the Earth or spacecraft.

Here’s a picture below that might give you an idea of what the sky looks like for astronauts and cosmonauts. This was shot at “night” so you can see the stars, but keep in mind that, to the human eye, most of the sky around you looks like this at all times. You just usually can’t capture it in photographs. The photo shows Earth’s orange airglow.

Stars - Earth Airglow from Space
On October 7, 2018, an astronaut aboard the International Space Station (ISS) captured this photograph while orbiting at an altitude of over 250 miles above Australia. The orange hue surrounding Earth is known as airglow-diffuse bands of light that extend 50 to 400 miles into our atmosphere. This phenomenon typically occurs when molecules, primarily nitrogen and oxygen, are energized by ultraviolet (UV) radiation from sunlight. To release that energy, atoms in the lower atmosphere collide and lose energy in the process, resulting in the colorful airglow. Photo: NASA

Another example: In the photo below, titled “Starry Night” by NASA, numerous stars provide a serene background in this view of Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus, captured by the Cassini spacecraft while the moon was in eclipse within Saturn’s shadow. The view looks up at Enceladus’ south pole. The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft’s wide-angle camera on October 9, 2008, at a distance of approximately 83,000 kilometers (52,000 miles) from Enceladus, with a Sun-Enceladus-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 73 degrees. The image scale is 5 kilometers (3 miles) per pixel.

Stars are visible in this photo because the exposure settings were adjusted to capture the faint light of the stars against the dark backdrop of space. When Enceladus is in an eclipse, the lack of direct sunlight reduces the brightness of the moon’s surface, allowing the camera to use longer exposure times. This enables the capture of the dim light from distant stars, creating a starry background that enhances the image’s beauty and scientific value.

Enceladus and stars
Starry Night. See, there are stars in space photos. Source: NASA
M. Özgür Nevres

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