The Sun, Moon, and Two Planets in a Remarkable Photo from Space

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
Aug. 4 2013 1:35 PM

Sunrise, Moonrise, Planetrise, As Seen from Space

Sun and Moon rise form space
Sunrise from space, with a late crescent Moon adding a poetic touch.

Photo by NASA

International Space Station astronaut Karen Nyberg has tweeted some amazing photos from space over the past few weeks, but this one may be the most remarkable, and she may not have even noticed why when she took it! [UPDATE: She did notice; see below.]

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

The picture above shows sunrise as seen from 400 kilometers (250 miles) above the Earth, our planet’s silhouette just beneath the overexposed curve of our atmosphere. The Sun is a mix of reddish colors, the blue and green light scattered away from it by particles in the air. What makes this image immediately special, though, is the quiet presence of the Moon, a thin crescent, off to the right. The Moon is a waning crescent, meaning its nearing the end of it's monthly orbital cycle, the lit part we see shrinking every day as the apparent distance between the Moon and the Sun dwindles.


But we’re not done. I wanted to see if I could tell just when this picture was taken, so I fired up some astronomy software to see where the Moon was today—it turns out the photo was taken just a few hours ago as I write this, very probably in the afternoon (UTC) on Sunday, August 4, 2013.

But I noticed that, according to the my software, Mercury was in the sky between the Moon and Sun. Wondering if it would be visible in the photo, I cranked up the brightness and saw not only what I’m pretty sure is Mercury, but also another bright “star” that I strongly suspect is Jupiter!

Mercury and Jupiter seen from space
Tweaking the photo a bit, two planetary interlopers appear: Mercury and Jupiter.

Photo by NASA

The positions and brightnesses all match, so I think we have a hit. The two planets should have been visible by eye from the space station, but the glare from the bright Sun may have swamped them, which may be why Nyberg didn’t mention them. Once I post this article I’ll tweet it to her; if she responds I’ll write an update!

UPDATE (18:15 UTC on Aug. 4, 2013): I sent a tweet to Nyberg, and she responded: "@BadAstronomer @NASA I DID see Jupiter & Mercury & was disappointed when I didn't see them in my photo. Thanks! Took this ~11:20 GMT today." Here's the whole conversation:

Twitter conversation with Karen Nyberg.
That day when I had a Twitter conversation with an astronaut who was orbiting the Earth at the time.

OK, wow, so today just got a lot cooler.


Justice Ginsburg’s Crucial Dissent in the Texas Voter ID Case

Even When They Go to College, the Poor Sometimes Stay Poor

Here’s Just How Far a Southern Woman May Have to Drive to Get an Abortion

The Most Ingenious Teaching Device Ever Invented

Marvel’s Civil War Is a Far-Right Paranoid Fantasy

It’s also a mess. Can the movies do better?


Sprawl, Decadence, and Environmental Ruin in Nevada

Space: The Next Generation

An All-Female Mission to Mars

As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.

Watching Netflix in Bed. Hanging Bananas. Is There Anything These Hooks Can’t Solve?

The Procedural Rule That Could Prevent Gay Marriage From Reaching SCOTUS Again

  News & Politics
Oct. 20 2014 3:53 PM Smash and Grab Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?
Oct. 20 2014 5:39 PM Whole Foods Desperately Wants Customers to Feel Warm and Fuzzy Again
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 1:10 PM Women Are Still Losing Jobs for Getting Pregnant
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 5:03 PM Marcel the Shell Is Back and as Endearing as Ever
Future Tense
Oct. 20 2014 4:59 PM Canadian Town Cancels Outdoor Halloween Because Polar Bears
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.