When photos go viral

Last week the Aurora Borealis (or Northern Lights) put on a spectacular display and amongst all the grainy pictures taken all over the country one picture was doing the rounds on Twitter and Facebook – supposedly coming from NASA’s Twitter feed that evening.

All over my timelines people were ooohing and aaaahing, no one could beat the picture that NASA had posted.

Aurora oval THEMIS mission NASA

A quick search showed that NASA’s Twitter feeds @NASA and @NASAhqphoto showed no such tweet. I also couldn’t find the original tweet in amongst all of the retweets doing the rounds that night.

Some people thought it was real, some people thought it was fake. Having ‘played’ on Photoshop for a number of years, and with an eye for detail, I had a look at the photo and realised that it wasn’t a photo at all. It was also old… the resolution on the Twitter ‘photo’ also seemed slightly wrong for these high tech days of ours.

I carried out a quick search and came up with the image on Astrobob’s lovely astronomy blog dated March 2013, also a few people on Facebook had found the same link. It popped up a few months later in July 2013 on the UniverseToday website.

The image popped up on other websites too, but when it was credited, all the credits said were ‘credit: NASA’.

Not very helpful.

As something of a researcher this kind of thing gets under my skin, as it shows that once something is ‘out there’ the origin of an image, or piece of text, can be difficult to trace without correct attribution. A friend found the ‘photo’ on an Icelandic site from 2012… so that took it back another year – it really wasn’t a new ‘real’ picture from space, although it did seem to come from NASA.

So I started searching.

I couldn’t find anything on the NASA website, but then again if you don’t know what search terms to search under it can be pretty difficult. All I had to go on was the Aurora.

Finally, after a while searching under a number of terms, I came across the Berkley University website, and a picture on a page from February 2007 that looked surprisingly familiar… linked to a video about the THEMIS mission. The Berkley website informed me that:

NASA is poised to launch on Feb. 15 five identical space probes — the largest number of spacecraft ever attempted by the agency on a single rocket — to solve a decades-long mystery about the origin of magnetic storms that turn the green, shimmering curtains of the Earth’s Northern and Southern Lights into colorful, dancing light shows.

So, we have a spacecraft about to look into the Aurora. The picture tied in with the subject very nicely, and NASA too. But the search had taken me back seven years!

Back to THEMIS and I found the actual mission website. And there is a video on substorms… with a very, very similar impression of the auroral ring in the animation, but we’ve jumped forward in time to 2012.

But hang on….

In July 2008 NASA announced that THEMIS had discovered what triggers the Northern Lights, and on this part of the website we have a picture in the sidebar that looks like it was made by the same artist.

*Cue image of the TARDIS swinging backwards and forwards in space time*

I couldn’t view the Berkley University video but I found something similar on YouTube, uploaded in 2010, which seems to be the original mission animated video. And there is our image!

Having a further look around the THEMIS website I found pages here and here that allow educators to download images from the original promotional video. Although there is a similar image to ours it’s not actually our picture.

Now while I have been unable to find the origin of the first picture as an actual picture, I’m certain it comes from the animated mission video, distributed to highlight the THEMIS mission into Auroral origins, and as a picture it was likely to have been used in the mission documentation.The lead animator for the project was Walt Feimer,

So… I can conclude that without further information, this isn’t actually a picture of the aurora from space, it’s an artist’s impression from the THEMIS launch video, from 2007.

Aurora oval THEMIS mission NASA
Image Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, Conceptual Image Lab

Phew! I do like a happy ending.


If you fancy seeing some real photos taken on the night, there are some fabulous ones on the BBC website.

6 Comments on “When photos go viral

  1. Sara, that was an AMAZING amount of research you had to do just to debunk a questionable photo. Let that be a lesson to all.

    • Surprising enough I love this kind of challenge Suzanne…that night I couldn’t rest until I knew exactly where that photo came from 😉

  2. I love how that shot made so many people go ‘oo’, when I looked and thought ‘eh up’! It was as you say not quite kosher for its background, but I love the idea of some wag releasing it and thinking look at all the numpties! 🙂 I do like cat pictures but the best ones come round again and again! which makes them less original and more likely to be shopped! Well hunted down that woman!

    • It was quite funny Ruan… but when people were retweeting and saying “look how fab this picture of tonight is”… well I just had to find out the truth.

      You know me… I like a good mystery 😀

    • Oooh not too long. Sitting in front to the telly on an evening I reckon it probably took no longer than an hour.
      I’m afraid my way of relaxing on an evening is quite often researching random stuff 🤓

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