Stars On (Or From) A Plane

At breakfast at a B&B in Arizona on the 1st of June, 2013, conversation ran to the use of airborne telescopes. NASA has long used astronomical telescopes mounted on aircraft. Most recently, SOPHIA (the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) has been flying about in a converted 747. SOPHIA boasts a 2.5 meter reflecting telescope, and flies high enough that infrared astronomy becomes possible.

In the days preceding this chat, during my recent trip through Arizona with astronomy on my mind, a nice alignment of three planets had taken place. Mercury, Venus, and Jupiter have all been grouped more or less in a line visible just after sunset. I went out several times during my trip to see this lovely sight and get a few photos. On the way home from Arizona to Ontario, I happened to be in a west-facing seat on a jet between Detroit, Michigan, and Toronto, Ontario, flying between 9:50 PM and 11 o’clock or so on the evening of 1 June 2013. I was thrilled to see some of the planets still above the western horizon during this flight. Jupiter had just set, but I managed to get photos of Mercury and Venus, and even picked up some of the surrounding stars in Gemini and Aquila, too. My mind flashed back to the breakfast conversation of the day before.

Here’s one of  several photos I took from the plane on the evening, processed slightly for contrast and brightness to try to emphasize the stars and planets. Please click on each image to see them somewhat enlarged. The planets and stars will be easier to spot:

Stars visible from a jet liner

The stars are a little hard to see on this reduced copy one of a series of photos taken on the evening of 1 June 2013.  The view is from a Canadair Regional Jet looking out the left side of the plane. The middle of the view is a little north of west. The vertical fin is a winglet that decreases wing-tip turbulence and increases efficiency. Photographed with a Nikon D800, f/3.8, 1/13th second exposure, ISO “maxed”, at 29mm focal length on manual focus.

Once I had my feet on the ground, I processed the image a little to facilitate spotting stars, and then used the free planetarium proram Stellarium to see what was where at the time, place, and altitude I took the photos. Here’s a labelled version of the same photo:

Stars visible from a jet liner, labelled

Venus, Mercury and an assortment of stars were visible – and photographable – from a regional jet flying between Detroit and Toronto on the evening of 2 June 2013. I confirmed identities of the stars and two planets visible at this time, from this direction and altitude, using Stellarium, a wonderful free planetarium program. Venus is about 12 degrees north of due west in this image. Jupiter would have set a little while before this, roughly under the trailing edge of the wing. Please click on this image to see a larger version.

In these versions of the photo, Venus is hard to spot, and even the stars are not nearly as obvious as they are on the original, much larger image. I cropped out a section of the original image file, and adjusted the contrast and brightness to show Venus a bit better. Hereès the edited image, which is not reduced in resolution at all from the original D800 photo. The colors have also not been modified, but appear more intense because of the changes to brightness and contrast.

Colourful close-up of Mercury and Venus as seen from a plane

Mercury (top) and Venus (bottom) from the same frame as above. Might make a great wall-hanging!

My photos from a jet liner don’t compete of course with real airborne astronomy. However, its reassuring to know that the night sky sometimes can be there fore you even when you don’t quite expect it. Even at 10,000 meters.

Copyright © 2013 David Allan Galbraith
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