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HomeScienceImages of planes, ships captured from low orbit do exist - FakeNews

Images of planes, ships captured from low orbit do exist – FakeNews

Images of planes, ships captured from low orbit do exist

Images of planes, ships captured from low orbit do exist

(Reuters) – Contrary to a claim on social media, images taken from spacecraft in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) of planes flying by or ships at sea do exist. But they are difficult for astronauts to capture with a handheld camera due to the distance from the object and the fact that both the object and the spacecraft are in motion, a NASA spokesperson told Reuters.

Pictures of planes and other objects near the Earth’s surface are more easily taken by commercial satellites, which do so all the time, but it’s uncommon for commercial images to be made public, an expert told Reuters.

A post shared on social media, and liked nearly 1,400 times at the time of writing, complains that images taken from space of planes in the air, ships at sea, or details of cities are unavailable while it’s possible to take images of far-off galaxies from Earth.

“All that money they get from us and they still can’t show us air planes flying by, no major city details, farm land or even cruise ships in the ocean!” an Instagram user sharing the claim said, adding that galaxies are viewable “at millions of kilometers but we don’t have the technology to zoom in on the earth from low orbit?!” (here).


The technology exists, experts told Reuters, but the difference in altitude between spacecraft and aircraft is one reason the latter would hardly be visible in a standard photograph. Most scientific satellites, including NASA’s Earth Observing System fleet, as well as the International Space Station (ISS), have a LEO at an altitude between 180 and 2,000 km, or about 100 to 1,200 miles above Earth. (here)

“The common cruising altitude for most commercial airplanes is between 33,000 and 42,000 feet, or between about six and nearly eight miles above sea level,” a NASA spokesperson told Reuters by email. Meanwhile, a spacecraft like the ISS “flies at approximately 250-260 miles above Earth.”

“Imagine trying to take a picture of something [about] 240 miles away when both objects are in motion,” the spokesperson said. Astronauts have fixed points on Earth that they want to photograph, and “even they have a limited window in which to get the shot they’re looking for as the space station is traveling at 17,500 mph or 5 miles per second,” and it would be challenging to identify a plane from the image, let alone capture the image in the first place, the spokesperson noted.

At least one photo of a flying plane taken from a spacecraft in LEO illustrates the problem. On July 19, 2015, an astronaut aboard the International Space Station (ISS) during Expedition 44 took a photo of “small island cays in the Bahamas and the prominent tidal channels cutting between them,” according to the NASA website (here).

The photo was taken with a Nikon D4 digital camera with a 1,150-millimeter lens, and due to “the astronaut’s steady hands in controlling a long lens in weightlessness, this photograph is detailed enough to show a single aircraft and its twin condensation trails,” the feature page says.

The plane in the photo (here) may not be easily recognizable at first glance, but zooming tightly on the narrow channels in the top-right area of the photo shows an aircraft with two condensation trails visible against the darker blue water of the channel. This can also be seen in a series of close-ups from the same image (


Images taken from satellites in LEO are much higher quality due to their “top-notch optical systems” compared to capturing a photo by hand, Matthew Shouppe, the senior director of insights and partnerships at LeoLabs (here) told Reuters.

“The result is the ability of those satellites to take much higher resolution images than any person on the ISS will be able to,” Shouppe said by email. “You can then more easily discern physical characteristics of the airplane or ship, making them identifiable.”

For example, in March 2021, a video of a container ship stuck in the Suez Canal in Egypt was captured by a satellite in LEO (here). The image is credited to SkySat, a constellation of 21 satellites owned by Planet (here), all of which orbit at between 400 and 600 kilometers (250 to 370 miles) above Earth.

More images of the container ship in the Suez Canal taken from Leo can be seen (here).

Commercial satellite constellations generally won’t release images for free to the public, so searching for those photos may not return many results, Shouppe said. “You’d have to contact those companies, tell them what you’re looking for, and then buy that imagery.”

For example, companies like Planet and Maxar openly advertise their capabilities to monitor ships and airfields, examples of which can be seen (here) a(here).

Shouppe added that videos are less common because it requires that the “satellite continuously slew to stay fixed on a single point” but such videos also exist. One video from a satellite in LEO shows the Burj Khalifa skyscraper in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and the surrounding city, where cars are visibly moving on the road (here).


Misleading. Images of planes in flight, ships and cities captured from spacecraft in Low Earth Orbit do exist.


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Abdullah Anaman
Abdullah Anaman
I am a highly competent IT professional with a proven track record in designing websites, building apps etc. I have strong technical skills as well as excellent interpersonal skills, enabling me to interact with a wide range of clients.


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