Spot a fake space photo

Be an in­stant ex­pert and never be fooled again

All About Space - - Contents - Writ­ten by Stu­art Atkin­son

If you use so­cial me­dia you will know it is dom­i­nated by two types of images – pic­tures of cats and pho­to­graphs of any­thing to do with space. Ev­ery plat­form has thou­sands of mem­bers who en­thu­si­as­ti­cally share pho­to­graphs taken through the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion’s win­dows, by space probes on or or­bit­ing plan­ets and through tele­scopes. Many are jaw-drop­pingly beau­ti­ful, and when a photo of the north­ern lights blaz­ing above snow-capped Cana­dian moun­tains or a view of a cop­per-hued eclipsed Moon hang­ing above a city sky­line pops up on our time­lines it is al­ways a pleas­ant sur­prise, and a wel­come dis­trac­tion from our ev­ery­day trou­bles. If there’s a cat in it, even bet­ter…

Un­for­tu­nately, many as­tro­nom­i­cal images posted on­line are not what they ap­pear to be. Some are gen­uine, but stolen from other peo­ple. Oth­ers are com­pos­ites, im­pres­sive but un­re­al­is­tic com­bi­na­tions of sev­eral dif­fer­ent gen­uine pho­tos to make some­thing in­ac­cu­rate or sci­en­tif­i­cally im­pos­si­ble. Oth­ers still are purely dig­i­tal cre­ations, pro­duced in­side com­put­ers with not a cam­era in sight.

Why do peo­ple cre­ate, or know­ingly share, these fake images? Some do it be­cause they are at­ten­tion seek­ers who want to be pop­u­lar on so­cial me­dia; they want as many ‘likes’ or ‘shares’ as pos­si­ble. A few do it be­cause they don’t have the equip­ment, ex­pe­ri­ence or skill needed to cre­ate gen­uine images, or they do but they are too lazy to learn how to take them them­selves. Oth­ers are look­ing for fi­nan­cial re­ward. The me­dia loves breath­tak­ing images of eclipses, a bright shoot­ing star or a dis­play of the north­ern lights, and some­times will even pay for them. Un­for­tu­nately, many of the peo­ple who se­lect images for use have very lit­tle, if any, as­tro­nom­i­cal knowl­edge, so they don’t know which images are real and which are fake. Some, to be per­fectly hon­est, don’t care; as long as an im­age is colour­ful and dra­matic they’ll use it.

Be­fore we look at how to spot these fakes and pre­vent your­self from be­ing fooled – and maybe even un­wit­tingly spread­ing them more widely across the in­ter­net – a short his­tory les­son…

It used to be all but im­pos­si­ble to fake a space im­age, es­pe­cially as­tropho­tographs of ob­jects in the night sky. In the old days cam­eras held coiled-up strips of light-sen­si­tive film which was then pro­cessed in tanks of chem­i­cals to pro­duce prints, or slides. Those pho­tos were es­sen­tially one offs, printed in books and mag­a­zines and couldn’t be copied. Today, sky watch­ers rou­tinely fire off dozens or even thou­sands of images in one night with­out the old wor­ries about run­ning out of film. Now we process our images on our com­put­ers, then post them on­line for oth­ers to en­joy – and where any Tom, Dick or wannabe as­tro­nom­i­cal Ansell Adams can steal them with a click of a mouse or a tap of a fin­ger, ei­ther claim­ing them as their own or us­ing them to make an­other im­age.

Today there are so many stolen or faked images out there that you might think spot­ting one is like look­ing for a nee­dle in a haystack. No, not quite. In fact, once you know what to look for it’s sur­pris­ingly easy to tell if an im­age is fake or not, es­pe­cially when it comes to as­tropho­tographs of the night sky.

First of all, it’s a bit sus­pi­cious if some­one posts an awe-in­spir­ing wide-field im­age of the night sky, or a stun­ning por­trait of a gal­axy or a ne­bula, out of the blue

with­out any pre­vi­ous ref­er­ences to tak­ing such pho­tos or hav­ing shown pre­vi­ously they have the equip­ment needed to take them. Most peo­ple take poor or even rub­bish pho­tos when they start, and the qual­ity of their work im­proves as they build up their skills. If some­one who has never posted even a sim­ple im­age be­fore sud­denly posts an amaz­ingly de­tailed one, claim­ing it as their own, you could be for­given for rais­ing a Spock-like eye­brow and won­der­ing if they’re pass­ing off some­one else’s work as their own…

Sadly, more and more ex­pe­ri­enced as­tropho­tog­ra­phers are hav­ing their work ripped off and claimed by oth­ers. Some now put dig­i­tal wa­ter­marks on their images, or hide per­sonal sym­bols or arte­facts in them to make them easy to iden­tify if posted in some­one else’s name.

Some images can be iden­ti­fied as fakes be­cause they are as­tro­nom­i­cally in­ac­cu­rate or im­pos­si­ble. It’s so easy to add streaks of light to an im­age in Pho­to­shop that af­ter ev­ery me­teor shower so­cial me­dia is flooded with images show­ing a sky full of bril­liant shoot­ing stars fall­ing par­al­lel to each other, in­stead of ra­di­at­ing from a com­mon point as they ac­tu­ally do. I’ve also lost count of the num­ber of ‘stun­ning images’ peo­ple have shared with me show­ing the Milky Way blaz­ing above a scenic land­scape at com­pletely the wrong ori­en­ta­tion to the hori­zon for that time of year, or ten-times brighter and more de­tailed than it can ever ap­pear in real life. Fak­ers who snip the Milky Way out of one im­age and blend it into an­other as­sume no one will know what they’ve done, but am­a­teur as­tronomers can spot a fake im­age like that from light years away. How­ever, peo­ple with no knowl­edge of the work­ings of the sky would not spot any­thing sus­pi­cious and share them, gen­uinely be­liev­ing they’re real.

An­other give­away: af­ter ev­ery to­tal lu­nar eclipse Twit­ter and Face­book groan un­der the weight of faked images show­ing the pump­kin-hued Moon glow­ing in a con­stel­la­tion it sim­ply can’t ap­pear in – a sign that the pho­tog­ra­pher ac­tu­ally made it by cut­ting an eclipsed Moon out of some­one else’s photo and then used im­age pro­cess­ing soft­ware to su­per­im­pose it on an­other photo of a star field show­ing a con­stel­la­tion nowhere near the eclip­tic, the path the Moon fol­lows across the sky.

Such ‘com­pos­ite’ images are the most com­mon type of fake be­cause they re­quire the least skill to make. Even so, the Moon of­ten trips up the com­pos­ite-crazy fak­ers. Dead give­aways of com­pos­ites in­clude be­ing able to mag­i­cally see stars through the Moon, spot­ting that the Moon’s re­flec­tion in a lake or on the ocean doesn’t line up with the ac­tual Moon in the sky or ac­tu­ally see­ing the Moon shin­ing in front of clouds. Again, all im­pos­si­ble things even an am­a­teur as­tronomer can tell are just… wrong.

It’s easy to spot an­other genre of fake as­tro­nom­i­cal photo be­cause they are sim­ply ridicu­lous. A hugely pop­u­lar im­age, shared af­ter ev­ery so­lar eclipse, claims to have been taken “from the Space Sta­tion” and shows an enor­mous eclipsed Sun shin­ing above the Earth with the Milky Way painted across the sky be­hind it. An­other shows an eclipsed Sun with a blood-red corona sur­round­ing it and an aero­plane fly­ing in front of it, some­how fully il­lu­mi­nated!

Let’s take a walk along an iden­tity pa­rade of fake pho­tos. Af­ter study­ing these you’ll be able to spot your own and avoid shar­ing these clas­sics with the rest of the world.

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