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No, This Picture From Space Doesn’t Show Explosions In Israel And Gaza

A picture purportedly showing rocket explosions from space went viral last week. Except that’s not what the picture showed.

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A photo tweeted out by German astronaut Alexander Gerst was shared across Facebook and Twitter last week. Here’s the original message:

Now, let’s look at some of the media coverage of this tweet. The Washington Post had a piece headlined “There are so many rockets flying in Gaza they light up the night from space.

The Los Angeles Times piece was headlined “The war in Gaza as seen from space: Astronaut shares wrenching photo.” One part of that article:

The photo has been retweeted more than 40,000 times and has elicited an emotional response from viewers. Among them: “Looks like a nightmare from a sci-fi movie. Will humans ever learn?”

News.com.au wrote that “An astronaut has given the conflict in Israel some perspective by tweeting a picture showing explosions and rockets that even he can see from space.”

According to CBS News, “This image taken from aboard the International Space Station shows explosions in the sky over Gaza and Israel.”

And here’s video from CNN about the tweet, in which the anchor says:

“Let me just show you something. This is a picture you’re about to see from space and it was tweeted by a European astronaut taken from the International Space Station. Along with the picture Alexander Gerst tweeted ‘My saddest photo yet. From the ISS we can actually see explosions and rockets flying over Gaza and Israel.’ as he said. Pretty poignant picture there telling the story of what is happening.”

But look at the picture again. What do you see?

A Facebook friend of mine — Todd Stadler — posed the question and it made me look again at the photo. I felt like an idiot. I hadn’t really looked at the picture or thought about what I was looking at. He posted another picture with the note, “I did my best to line up the astronaut’s photograph with a map of the area. It’s a little tricky, because he’s taking a photo of a (real) globe, not whatever map projection Google uses, so I couldn’t line them up perfectly…”:

Screen Shot 2014-07-28 at 2.57.01 AM

And then he showed where Gaza is, roughly, in the photo:

Screen Shot 2014-07-28 at 3.14.56 AM

In other words, the lights aren’t rocket glares or explosions but city lights. Mostly Tel Aviv but also Haifa, Jerusalem, Be’er Sheva and others. Gaza is mostly dark. Space.com posted a video of the image, focusing in on a bright light — possibly in Ashdod. But the video was headlined and captioned, “Gaza Explosions and Flying Rockets Seen From Space: Photographs taken by ISS astronaut Alexander Gerst show the waging war on the Gaza strip and Israel.” Except they don’t. The photographs just show normal night lights. Perhaps reporters were initially confused by the ambiguous wording of the tweet. The astronaut wrote elsewhere that he could see streaks of light in the region indicating the flare of rockets.

Some media mischaracterizations, such as the initial Washington Post item linked above, were updated to reflect the error. But most remain uncorrected.

It doesn’t change anything about the horrible situation in Israel and Gaza to note this, just that the media should be diligent to report the situation there accurately.

Follow Mollie on Twitter.