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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

In Case You Miss Chris Hadfield …

By Phil Plait

Astronaut Chris Hadfield returned safely to Earth in May after spending several months in space. During that time, he took amazing and beautiful pictures of our world from his high perch, and when he came home, many people worried that it would mean a cessation of such photographs.

Worry no more. Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano tweeted this jaw-dropper just this morning:

Wow. (You really want to click that to embiggen it, too.) When Parmitano tweeted it, he said, âThe low sun creates beautiful contrasts with the #clouds: I just donât get tired of it! #volare.â He didnât say whether the Sun was rising or setting, and I couldnât squeeze the info from the picture saying when it was taken. But either way, the long, long shadows coming from the clouds are lovely.

And I noticed something rather fun in the picture, too. The shadows look nearly but not quite parallel; on the sides of the picture the shadows are angled slightly outward. However, I think this is an illusion: They are actually parallel, but what youâre seeing is perspective. Itâs exactly the same as a pair of railroad tracks appearing to converge in the distance at whatâs called the vanishing point.

For all intents and purposes, the Sun is infinitely far away in this picture; the photo only covers a few hundred kilometers (at most) left to right, but the Sun is 150 million kilometers away. That means the direction to the Sun is the same for any cloud in this shot (Iâm ignoring the curvature of the Earth, which isnât important), and in turn that means their shadows are parallel. But Parmitano was shooting at a slight angle, pointing his camera toward the Sun a bit and not straight down. That adds perspective to the shot, like looking along railroad tracks as they go off in the distance. And thatâs why the shadows donât look parallel, even when they are.

I donât think we have to worry about the new Space Station crew not holding on to the long tradition of tweeting beautiful views from space. And just to drive that point literally home, American astronaut Karen Nyberg tweeted this the other day:

Her caption? Simply, âSunset.â It was the first picture she took from her new home. I think Expedition 36 is going to work out just fine.

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