Fact check: Viral photo of northern lights is a NASA animation, not an image from space

·3 min read

The claim: Image shows the aurora borealis taken from space

Many sky chasers hunt down northern lights to experience and capture the bright rainbow colors that are caused when charged particles from the sun collide with atoms in Earth's atmosphere.

A viral image shared to Facebook claims to share an even better view of the phenomena, purportedly taken from space.

“The Aurora Borealis from space,” reads a Nov. 26 Facebook post shared hundreds of times. Along with the text is an image of Earth with bright swirls of green, blue and red lights surrounding the planet in a circle.

In a message to USA TODAY, the Facebook user said he downloaded the image from a page that he doesn't remember and decided to post it.

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Image is from NASA

A reverse Google search reveals that the image originates from NASA on March 30, 2005.It is not a real photo taken from space.

The image comes from a video by the NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab and was created by lead animator Walt Feimer. The frame of the lights above Earth appears around the one-minute mark of the video, which is visible on the official NASA site and is part of the "Live from the Aurora" series of conceptual animations.

"Join a ride with electrons along the Earth's magnetic field line to the formation site of the aurora," reads the caption of the video. Below the video, it states it was created by 3D Unstructured-mesh Magnetosphere Simulation.

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Authentic aurora photos from space

While this image was created using animations, the aurora is visible from space. NASA has an aurora image gallery that shows a variety of lights captured from the point of view of a space station.

NASA has a spacecraft orbiting Earth to watch and measure the aurora, and astronauts on the International Space Station can see them from the same distance, CBC reported.

However, auroras can put an astronaut's health at risk, damage satellites in orbit around the Earth and, in severe cases, cause blackouts in terrestrial power grids, according to Space.com.

In 2018, European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst captured a photo of an aurora from space and shared it to Twitter. "Mind-blowing, every single time. I wonder what early explorers thought when they first saw an aurora without ever having heard about it," he wrote.

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Our ruling: Missing context

The image claiming to show the aurora from space is MISSING CONTEXT because the post fails to mention that the photo was created with computer-generated animation and is not an authentic photo taken from space. Auroras are visible from space, however, the image in the post comes from a 2005 NASA conceptual project.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Viral photo of northern lights is NASA computer animation

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