So what does space look like...from space?

In most scifi movies and video games, space is terribly dramatic. Lots of big blue and red clouds, nebulae and such. I’m presuming that humans have seen space at some point with a minimum of light pollution, either while on the night side in orbit (with the moon on the day side) or on the far side of the moon during a new moon.

So what does it look like…just a very starry night, or with all the cool stuff?

Note that until about 120 years ago, human ability to generate light pollution was rather pitiful and every human alive knew what a bright starry sky looked like: vast numbers of visible stars (essentially all belonging to our own galaxy) against a dark black background.

You can still see this in really remote areas, or at sea (far from land). There’s a distinct shortage of big blue and red clouds (save possible when auroras are active).

You can make out the Milky Way from the surface of the Earth.

http://astrophoto.com/Sugarpine.jpg

I would give up lights at night to see that…

When the blackout hit the midwest a few years ago, it was a cloudless time. I saw the Milky Way again. I hadn’t seen it in years. It was beautiful.

I don’t see any specifications about how that picture was taken. Most astronomy pictures are time lapse pictures which keep the camera shutter open for minutes or hours. This looks like long exposure shot. The camera would have to be mounted on a motor gearing to be in syn with the rotating earth.
It’s also possible there was some photo editing to put the canoe in place.
If you are a city person you can expect some amazing viewing when you find a really dark place and let you eyes get adjusted but don’t expect this.

I am also curious about this. I’ve spent some time in the darkest areas of the country and, while the stars are spectacular, it’s not like that picture in Shinybrain’s post, which I assume is a long exposure.

Is the absence of atmosphere alone enough to make the stars significantly more spectacular to the naked eye in space?

They aren’t going to look way different in space. A clear sky above you is not going to be very visible; you are pretty much going to see the stars through it.

If the Moon is out, its light tends to drown out a lot of subtle things, and also make the atmosphere a bit brighter (the Sun makes the atmosphere bright enough that we admire its blue color). City lights and haze will certainly take their toll.

The beautiful colors and noticeable clouds in astronomical photos are because they are exposed for a long time, and often because they are magnifying an exciting spot in the sky. These clouds are barely visible as a lighter area, if your skies are dark and clear and your eyes are good and adapted to the dark. If you want to test this, look around the clump of stars in Orion’s sword; that’s pretty much the nicest cloud you’re going to see in the north.

The Milky Way is impressive to behold under favorable conditions. I read that Pacific island people in areas with nice seeing actually have some constellations made of dark spots that are blocking the lighter Milky Way behind them.

Having seen the Milky Way from a REALLY dark place under optimum conditions, I’d say that photo is a reasonable approximation of what the Milky Way can look like to the naked eye. As you say, the reflection and canoe might be photo fudged a bit though.

To answer the OP – just a starry night, although it can be very starry, with the Mily Way and all. You might also see zodiacal light and the aurora, and sometimes moonbows and hales from the moon.
But, yeah, all the huge, colored nebulae and things are artistic license. They didn’t want space to seem to “dull”. Look at hard SF movies from the 1950s – Forbidden Planet and Destination Moon – and you just see starfields. Even the otherwise pretty good It! The Terror from Beyond Space put some faster-moving comets that were grossly inaccurate, but gave you something to see.
2001 9at least the in-solar-system scenes) looks pretty accurate, as does 2010, and even the Star Wars films, at least the early ones.

Moving starfields, by the way, where you seem to be traveling through the stars with them passing by on either side, like trees in a forest, don’t make much sense, either. if you were really moving that fast relativistic effects make things look weird.

Since the OP mentioned sci-fi and games, that brings up the point that the action is often deliberately put in such a “exciting spot in the sky”. We live in a fairly quiet area of the galaxy, one which usually lacks the kind of high energy phenomenon that would look really impressive to the naked eye. The Cool Stuff is either generally low energy, and therefore dim; or far away and therefore dim from our perspective.

Although I’ll point out that it’s also artistic license to dim the sun enough to make out the neat looking details; in that case, the problem is that the real thing is too bright and spectacular for us to handle, not too little. And even familiar images like the outer planets wouldn’t look the same in person; it’s too dark out there. It’s something of a grey area how much what is done qualifies as “enhancing it to make it look cooler”, and how much it qualifies as “enhancing it so our limited human eyes can see properly”.

The canoe pic is clearly photoshopped, there are at least two issues that make the picture impossible. (There are stars in the reflection that are not visible in the sky, there is no trace of atmospheric extinction towards the horizon - nothing.) Plus other inconsistencies. My guess is that not only is the reflection faked, but the night sky has been photoshopped in too.

A really really clear night sky can be astounding. However one thing you will never see with the naked eye are colours in nebulae. There just isn’t enough light to activate the colour receptors. You should be easily able to distinguish the star colours (but that is true even in the city for the bright stars.)

You can see the effect of dark nebulae in the way of the stars, the well know one is the Coal Sack, which sits on one side of the Southern Cross. But the quite dramatic display of dark clouds in the milky way of the canoe pic are not visible to the naked eye.

I have taken pictures like the sky field in canoe shot (it isn’t hard, and a lot of fun). A simple motor driven platform can be made up with odds and ends, and a few minutes time exposure will get a very nice result.

Another problem with the canoe pic is that the reflected star field will rotate the opposite direction to the sky, which means you can’t compensate for it.

Again, I am going to disagree a bit.

Yes, that is probably a composite pic with some trickery. But I’ve seen the Milkyway nearly as good as in that pic. Lots of dark spots and bright clumps. I’ve easily seen the big dark galactic horse in that photo in real life. Can you see the horse in that photo ?

The details in that pic are bit sharper than you typically see with the eye, the contrast and color levels are bit higher than normal, but again, IMO, they are there to be seen with the naked eye with perhaps a bit of enhancement.

One thing the photo doesnt show. When its really dark and good the Milky Way actually quits looking like many many stars and actually DOES look like a milky river of light across the sky, hence the name.

I am really trying to find some pictures that are similar to what the naked eye would see but its a bit tricky… I did find some videos that I find quite amazing…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oJbSrJuAm_o&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Z3cVQcfb-w
(this one does say each frame is a 20 second exposure)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tzFYBtJ4v_4&NR=1
(if it is a lengthened exposure its rather short as the clouds don’t seem to be distorted.)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TKSejOwwB7I

http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/ap090818.html

http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/ap090729.html

http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/ap090219.html

http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/ap090127.html

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tzFYBtJ4v_4&NR=1

Another problem: You also have to compensate for the motion of the canoe.

The best Milky Way I’ve ever seen was from the summit of Haleaka Volcano on Maui. And yes, there were people photographing it . . . with flash.

Well duh, it was a night wasn’t it? If they were smart, they’d have brought ladders.

Photoshopped Milky Way Picture:

I found this in a Google search for that photograph:

Capturing the Stars: Astrophotography by the Masters - Google Books Result by Robert Gendler, Neil deGrasse Tyson - 2009 - Science - 160 pages

“Milky Way over Sugar Pine Reservoir An artistic fusion of day and nighttime imagery produced this fanciful view of the summer Milky Way and its reflection …”

I remember the first time I saw the Milky Way in all its glory. I was visiting my cousins in Tasmania in 1993 in the town of Tinderbox, about 15 miles south of Hobart. I looked up to the sky one night and, not only was a greeted to an unfamiliar Southern Hemisphere sky, but for the first time in my life I had understood why it was called “the Milky Way.” The sky was awash in stars, including a cloudy band of stars that looked milky and gaseous. I describe it to myself as being the first time I’ve been able to see “all” the stars. The closest visual representation in this thread would probably be the third link in shinybrain’s last post. Or something like this, but a bit less contrasty and bright. But not by much.

One difference between seeing the sky from Earth vs space is that stars don’t twinkle in space. No doubt everyone knew that, but I’ll say it anyway, just in case.

It should be noted that it’s extremely rare for an astronomical photo to look the same as it would be seen by the human eye. They don’t usually add stuff or combine two unrelated pictures, although that is sometimes done for aesthetic reasons (and any that are are not scientific images.) But they are nearly always done for very long exposures, converted to false color, and processed to bring out subtle details.

I will agree that the milky way in full glory is pretty damn good - I have observed in what is rated as some of the best seeing on the planet bar some of the high mountain top (i.e. Pic du Midi, Mauna Kea) observatories. It can be pretty good. Magelanic clouds, easy, Coal Sack, easy, darker clumps yup, but what you can’t see are what I described. You can’t see the continuous dust clouds and you can’t see any colour.

On the other hand, there is no photo you can buy that does the real thing justice. They might have greater contrast, deeper light grasp, and colours, but nothing gets close to lying on your back looking at the real thing. The sheer size, the dynamic range of light, nothing touches it. On that point I think we agree.