Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Gaza Explosions and Rockets Seen from Space?

Earlier today a tweet went viral (over 12,000 retweets and over 3,000 favorites as of 0344 GMT 24/7/14; nearly 43,000 retweets, and over 12,000 favorites as of 2115 GMT 26/7/14) from astronaut Alexander Gerst, currently residing in the International Space Station (ISS):

Maybe because I am spatially hyper-aware, but this immediately set off alarm bells for me. After taking a second with the image, I saw that the photo clearly is showing something entirely different from what the astronaut has implied.

The image is oriented with West at the top, and North to the right. The lights are from cities and highways. On the upper right Haifa and Haifa Bay are clearly visible. On the lower portion, Amman is clear (note the different color of lights for this city). In the middle of the image is Jerusalem, with the Tel Aviv metropolitan slightly above and to the right (Northwest). Between the two is Ben Gurion Airport. To the left (South) of Tel Aviv are Ashdod and Ashkelon respectively. Below and to the right (Southeast) of Ashdod and Ashkelon, Beer Sheva is clear, with the line between Beer Sheva and Tel Aviv being Highway 6. All the way to the upper left (Southwest) is al Arish, with Gaza between there and Ashkelon. Just to the lower right (Northeast) of Gaza is Sderot.

I have crudely annotated the image to show this. Remember the distance from Gaza City to Haifa is approximately 90 miles.

Unfortunately, due to Mr. Gerst being unclear with his words, and a whole lot of people (including a LOT of world-renowned reporters and their editors) not asking the right questions, the public is now of the opinion that this is a photo of explosions and rockets in Gaza. I will not contest Mr. Gerst's assertion that the rockets and explosions are visible from the ISS, but they are certainly not visible in the image he shared. Imagine how large an explosion would have to be for it to show up on a picture from space with such a large amount of land displayed (my guesstimate is that it shows about 180 miles by 110 miles). While Mr. Gerst apparently thinks that it is a sad photo, I think it is an awesome photo; I love how city lights look from space. If anything, I find this image to be awe-inspiring because of how to shows the mark of human civilization in the world.

UPDATE: finally Mr. Gerst acknowledged that there are no explosions visible in his photo. Unfortunately he did not post any correction to this on twitter, did not correct the many reporters and news sources that said there were explosions in the photo and simply posted a link to his blog where he briefly (and insufficiently in my opinion) discussed why the photo made him sad.

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