I like looking at photos of stuff in earths orbit. But when I google satellites I often get a lot of nice but not as exciting CGI. I understand it might be hard (but not impossible) for a satellite to take a photo of itself. Surely it can't be that difficult to put a camera on one though?

  • $\begingroup$ nasa.gov/mission_pages/msl/multimedia/pia16457.html shows a self-shot that the Mars rover Curiosity took by assembling pictures. I would be interested in other exceptional photos like that. $\endgroup$
    – marczellm
    Commented Mar 13, 2014 at 17:31
  • $\begingroup$ I'd also like to point out that real images from space often appear intuitively unrealistic, because of the very different light model in space. There's hardly any ambient light and shadows tend to be very hard, weird "sharpness" etc. We've learned to interpret those things as unrealistic in our minds. The colors are also very clear - the light from the Sun / Moon didn't pass through the atmosphere, so the blues weren't scattered away. $\endgroup$
    – Luaan
    Commented Mar 14, 2014 at 10:48
  • $\begingroup$ "Surely it can't be that difficult to put a camera on one though": Many satellites have high definition sensors in the visible spectrum, from spy satellites to space telescopes. I've no doubt many orbiting objects have been photographed, but the images are not public. There is a difficulty for shooting images, the target must be tracked during the time of exposure. This requires energy, so the satellite must be designed for this specific mission objective. $\endgroup$
    – mins
    Commented Aug 27, 2015 at 1:15

4 Answers 4


Satellites are expected to keep their distance from each other to avoid collisions. That means when a satellite would ever get close enough to another satellite to take a picture of it, something went really wrong.

Usually the only object which would ever be close enough to a satellite in orbit to take a good picture would be the upper stage of its launch vehicle right after separation.

Equipping the upper stage with a camera would add additional mass which has questionable use for the mission goal. You might have a chance to spot some external damage caused to the satellite during launch or separation. But the chances are low because the upper stage would see the satellite only from one direction. Also, light conditions in space aren't that well - you only have a single light source and almost no ambient light. Any damage to the parts in the shadow would be hardly visible. Well, you could perform some orbital maneuvers with both upper stage and satellite to get some good shots from all angles, but really, why bother? Either the satellite works or it doesn't, and spotting some scratches somewhere is hardly going to tell you what exactly went wrong during launch. Also, the risk to cause damage with these maneuvers isn't non-negligible either (a malfunction or operator error might cause upper stage and satellite to collide).

So what reason remains to take pictures?

Public Relations.

And the public will be much more excited by a shiny, polished CGI image from an exciting angle than a grainy, badly-lit (hard shadows everywhere) photograph from a boring perspective. Look at this press image from ESAs SWARM mission, for example. Yes, pure CGI. But you couldn't take a photo nearly as awesome-looking under real space conditions. So why even bother trying?

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    $\begingroup$ The point about lighting is a good one. Pictures from space that aren't immaculately planned often suck, like a bad tourist photo. We're too used to Earth's surface where light has been diffused nicely. Orbit is a photographer's nightmare. $\endgroup$
    – AlanSE
    Commented Mar 13, 2014 at 14:17
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    $\begingroup$ Also, even if the camera was usable to spot scratches on the satellite, what are you gonna do about it? Not a whole lot unless you wanna launch a Shuttle mission to... oh, wait... $\endgroup$
    – Iszi
    Commented Mar 13, 2014 at 16:40
  • $\begingroup$ Equipping the upper stage with a camera would add additional mass which has questionable use for the mission goal. — doesn't SpaceX do just that, though? They seem to have live camera footage of stage separation coming from the second stage in their webcasts. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 14, 2014 at 12:19
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    $\begingroup$ @codesparkle ...and so did Apollo 11. But the difference is that these are flights which are either highly experimental (SpaceX) or will have historical significance (Apollo 11), so there is a reason to document them. The public interest in communication satellite #34 sent into orbit by a tried and true launch system is not. $\endgroup$
    – Philipp
    Commented Mar 14, 2014 at 12:28
  • $\begingroup$ A lot of satellites have cameras on them. spacedaily.com/reports/… $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 14, 2014 at 19:22

One other thing to note is also that most of these computer generated graphics are prepared before the satellite even launches and might be used to get an impression of the whole mission, simulate satellites operation, assess mission feasibility, even to serve as a visualisation aid during design, selection and funding stages of the project. When the satellite is designed, engineers would build a computer generated 3D model of its parts and as assembled anyway, so taking those 3D models and running them through some eye-pleasing ray tracing software comes at little to no expense to mission planners, and agency's PR officers. And they tend to look a lot better and are available long before any selfies would be, so they are used in public media earlier. Once that's set in motion, certain images of the satellite design might have already imprinted into people's memories and by now a recognizable public image of the whole mission will of course be used more often than some low-quality selfies. Pre-existing CGI (often including mission demonstration videos) then remove that little potential value for vanity photography, unless they're already needed to conduct satellites mission anyway.

So if these cameras and the arms needed to distance them away from the satellite so the satellite can self-reflect would be strictly for vanity purposes, such as selfies, and public media already has press kit materials they need, then there isn't any technical and scientific justification to add such devices to them, and would only make them heavier and thus more expensive to launch. For self-inspection purposes, other types of sensors are more effective given the environmental constraints (lighting, solar radiation introducing sensor noise, atomic oxygen oxidizing exposed equipment, micrometeorites and dust disabling it altogether, and whatnot), they can be built into the hardware itself, are lighter, consume less power, and with no or fewer moving parts they're not just another point of failure with little to no benefit to the mission.

If satellites would have sets of arms for selfies, it would mean you're wasting precious weight and volume constraints, and the arms would likely have to be retracted during the launch into the satellite's body so it's weight-balanced, spin stable and fits into its payload slot, further reducing its usable volume and surface area that might otherwise be used for scientific equipment, propulsion and avionics systems, solar panels, heat radiators, heat insulation, and so on. Any such protruding arms would also open up and expose parts of the satellite to the environment once extended, and needlessly complicate satellite's design.

So, in a nutshell, it might make sense to include such hardware if that's required for satellite's self-inspection (say, International Space Station has cameras on its truss and robotic arms, and is technically still an artificial satellite), but with most smaller satellites that rarely has any real value. But for better or worse, it's not unheard of that something like this has been done solely for vanity and PR purposes. From description of the ARTEMIS SmallSats Constellation:

Users can even take “Selfies” and upload their images to the micro-satellites. The onboard cameras will capture the image of users Selfies against the background of Space and the Earth and will send the Selfie back to it’s user, creating a truly unique, once in a lifetime message.


Additional to the other answers:

if you would use your upper stage to take photos of your satellite, and even add lighting equipment you still would not get a nice shot, because most satellites take some time to reach their final configuration - they have to unfold solar panels, etc.

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    $\begingroup$ Right, and it most likely wouldn't include a nice background of Earth as seen from orbit either. ;) $\endgroup$
    – TildalWave
    Commented Mar 14, 2014 at 14:24

There is a matter of information security as well. Satellites are expensive, both for governments and businesses, and providing your competitors with information to reverse engineer your intellectual property doesn't make any sense. Any photograph may very well contain sensitive information about the construction of that satellite that an intelligent engineer can utilize to aid in reverse engineering. The great thing about the computer generated models is that you can control what the public sees.


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