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Dr. Christopher S. Baird

What would space ships actually look like in space?

Category: Space      Published: February 16, 2013

apollo 13 after separation
Space ships within the solar system, such as this Apollo 13 Service Module, are starkly lit by sunlight and without ambient light. Public Domain Image, source: NASA.

In space, there is only direct sunlight from the nearest star (light from the other stars is negligible in terms of illumination). On earth, we also have a sky that scatters some of the sunlight in all directions, creating ambient light. But in space, there is no sky to create ambient light. As a result, a spacecraft inside a solar system is starkly lit with one side in bright light and one side in deep shadow, much like the crescent moon. Alternatively, a spacecraft that is outside of any solar system and is therefore very far from all stars, would be completely dark aside from its own internal lights. Such vehicles in deep space would look like vehicles do on earth at night away from streetlights and with no moon. Movies and television shows that portray spaceships as lit with ambient light are incorrect. Note that a spacecraft that is very close to a planet, such as the International Space Station, would be lit by ambient light from the planet if it is over the daytime side.

Topics: space illumination, space ship, space travel