Why aren’t Earth’s night skies more colorful?

Why are Earth's skies so boring? You see pictures of galaxies, nebulae, clusters, etc., but they're always far away. Why couldn't Earth have been in the middle of a colorful nebula or some other non-boring zone of space?

Fish's Mouth dark nebula

This close-up image in the Orion Nebula shows the Fish's Mouth, a dark nebula.
HST / NASA / ESA

Celestial photos show what things would look like if your eyes were as powerful, sensitive, and versatile as modern cameras. They're not, and never will be. Galaxies, for instance, are inherently dim by human-eye standards. If you were looking out a spaceship window hovering right over a galaxy, it would still look fairly subtle.

But don't take my word for it. You can see that view for yourself, because we're actually inside a galaxy. You can't get much closer than that! Travel far from city lights on a clear, moonless night, let your eyes dark-adapt fully, and you'll see the Milky Way spread above you from horizon to horizon. It doesn't glow like an iPod, but against a velvet-black sky it's vast, complex, and beautiful.

We actually live in a very interesting part of space; the reason people think it's boring is light pollution!

— Tony Flanders