Fact check: Image shows NASA's flying observatory and an internet balloon

·3 min read

The claim: Graphic shows the Hubble Space Telescope and a satellite

Since it was launched into space in April 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope has made more than a million observations, sending back to Earth images of our planetary neighbors and stars thousands of light-years away.

But a social media post is showing an image of what it claims is the Hubble Telescope, which doesn't appear to be in space at all.

"THIS IS THE HUBBLE TELESCOPE," reads a graphic shared to Instagram on Oct. 20 showing an airborne jumbo jet emblazoned with the NASA logo on its tail.

Below that is another image the post claims is a satellite, which shows an object suspended from a ballon.

The post received over 1,000 likes in less than a week on Instagram. USA TODAY reached out to the user who posted the claim for comment.

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While the jumbo jet depicted is owned by NASA, it's not the Hubble Space Telescope, as the post wrongly claims. And the so-called satellite is actually a balloon used to bring internet signals to a remote area.

NASA's flying observatory

The plane image is of NASA's flying observatory called SOFIA, or the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, which is the largest airborne observatory in the world, according to the aerospace agency.

The modified Boeing 747 carries a 2.7-meter reflecting telescope that is used to observe and study a type of electromagnetic radiation in the universe called infrared. This type of radiation is difficult to observe with ground-based telescopes as Earth's atmosphere blocks nearly all incoming infrared. The SOFIA project is done in collaboration with the German Aerospace Center.

Below is an image of SOFIA.

SOFIA is a Boeing 747SP jetliner modified to carry a 100-inch diameter telescope. It is a joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center.
SOFIA is a Boeing 747SP jetliner modified to carry a 100-inch diameter telescope. It is a joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center.

And here's an image of the Hubble Telescope when it was orbiting Earth in 1990.

Second image is of an internet balloon

Satellites are objects that rotate around another object or a celestial body in space. These can be natural, such as Earth rotating around the sun, or artificial like the Hubble Space Telescope, according to NASA.

But the image in the Instagram post is not a satellite: it's a balloon created by startup Loon, a subsidiary of Google's parent company Alphabet.

Announced in 2013, Loon used solar-powered, high-altitude balloons as an alternative to cell towers to deliver internet access to rural and remote areas across the globe. The balloons helped restore cell services in Puerto Rico during a hurricane in 2017, and they were tested in Kenya, New Zealand and Peru, USA TODAY reported.

The project was shut down by Alphabet in January for being unable to build a long-term, sustainable business, Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth said in a January blog post.

Our rating: False

Based on our research, we rate FALSE the claim a graphic shows the Hubble Space Telescope and a satellite. The images are of NASA's flying observatory SOFIA and high-altitude balloons created by Loon, a subsidary of Google's parent company Alphabet, to deliver internet access to rural and remote areas.

Our fact-check sources:

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Image shows an airborne observatory and internet balloon