The Claim: Photos Appearing to Show Clouds Behind the Sun Suggest It Orbits Earth, Isn’t Millions of Miles Away
The Earth revolves around the sun, a star located more than 90 million kilometers from the center of the solar system.
However, some social media users say a series of photos challenge this scientific conclusion about the distance to the sun and its position relative to the Earth.
A January 4 Facebook post includes what appear to be photos of the sun with clouds both in front and behind the sun.
“If the Sun is 93 million miles away, how are there clouds behind it?” reads the message. “It doesn’t make sense unless the Sun revolves around the Earth.”
The post racked up over 600 interactions in a matter of weeks.
However, clouds are actually located between the sun and the Earth’s surface, according to Rona Oran, a computational space physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. When clouds appear behind the sun in a photo, it’s an optical illusion.
USA TODAY found additional versions of the claim on Facebook dating back to 2019. It was also recently posted on Twitter.
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USA TODAY has reached out to social media users who shared the claim for comment.
The appearance of clouds behind the sun is an optical illusion
The post appears to be tied to a “Flat Earth” belief system – a set of theories claiming that the Earth is flat rather than spherical. Some flat-Earth believers believe the Sun is smaller and closer to the Earth, moving in circles above the Earth, seemingly low enough to make contact with the clouds.
However, the photos in the post don’t actually support the nearby small sun theory.
“It’s an optical illusion,” Oran told USA TODAY. “All the clouds are…in front of the sun.”
The distance between Earth and the sun – about 93 million miles – has been established through several sources of evidence. These include radar measurements, geometric calculations based on ground observations and a space mission to the sun.
The effect observed on the image is linked to the transparency of the different clouds.
When a photo is taken of a relatively opaque cloud passing between the sun and a photographer, the cloud covers enough of the sunlight for the cloud to appear in the resulting photo.
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But when a very translucent cloud passes between the sun and the photographer, the part of the cloud in front of the sun does not appear in the photo. This is because too much light passes through the cloud and hits the film or the camera sensor.
“It’s like overexposure,” Oran said.
This makes it look like part of the cloud has disappeared behind the Sun, she says. But this is not the case.
Our opinion: False
Based on our research, we rate FALSE the claim that photos appearing to show clouds behind the sun suggest that it orbits the earth and is not millions of miles away. Clouds only appear to be behind the sun when too much light passes through the cloud and hits the film or camera sensor, causing overexposure.
Our fact-checking sources:
Rona Oran, January 20, phone interview with USA TODAY
NASA, accessed January 20, Sunday
Scientific American, March 27, 2020, Flat Earthers: What They Believe and Why
Ask an Astronomer, January 30, 2016, How do you measure the distance between the Earth and the Sun?
Phys.org, January 5, 2015, How did we find the distance to the sun?
NASA, December 14, 2021, NASA enters the solar atmosphere for the first time, bringing new discoveries
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Photos don’t prove the sun is near and orbiting Earth