My First Try at Photographing the International Space Station

The idea of being able to take a photograph of the International Space Station is enchanting. Here’s one of humanities’ greatest achievements, passing by very frequently and yet so far out of reach to those of us on the ground.

Taking photos of the ISS is perfectly possible from the ground, but it requires some preparation. First, you have to know how to find it. There are several smartphone apps and on-line sites that allow you to predict when and where the ISS will be visible from your location. I use ISS Spotter on an iPhone, which I find very handy.

Once you know where it is going to be you have to think about how to capture it. The ISS typically crosses a section of the sky at a rate of between 1 and 3 degrees per second. This doesn’t sound too fast, but when you realize that it’s about 100x faster than computerized telescope mounts move you get some idea of the challenge. Even a large consumer telescope on a computer mount just can’t keep up.

It IS possible to follow the ISS and other satellites using computerized telescope mounts, but they’re not off-the-shelf gear. An absolute master at this kind of photography is Thierry Legault, an engineer based in Paris, France. Thierry’s systems include modified mounts that can turn at the phenomenal speeds needed to track a satellite. Take a look at his images and his methods at: http://www.astrophoto.fr/

My equipment isn’t up to that sort of approach, but you don’t need to that way. Instead, I’ve tried mounting my 125mm Meade Terabeam Maksutov-Cassegrain telescope on a photographic tripod. This arrangement (see the photo) is easily carried in one hand. It depends on being able to use the finding device (in this case a Rigel Systems QuikFinder reflex sighting device) to follow the target. Using this simple set-up it’s possible to follow the target and take numerous photos or shoot video, and them examine the resulting images later for any that worked out. This is an approach related to “Lucky Imaging” that is commonly used in more sane corners of amateur astronomy.

ISS Hunting Rig

My ISS-hunting rig. I’ve mounted a Nikon dSLR camera at prime focus on a 125 mm Meade Terabeam Maksutov-Cassegrain telescope. This is then set up on a heavy-duty photography tripod. This telescope is equipped with a red-circle Rigel Systems QuikFinder (http://rigel.datacorner.com/rigelsys/quikfinder.html )

Of course I am using the term “sane” in a tongue-in-cheek manner here and mean no disrespect to those suffering from mental disabilities. It’s just the term that came to mind as I snapped away at the space station like a field gunner trying to shoot down an Sopwith Camel during the First World War.

There are a couple of very basic set-up steps that deserve every bit of attention before the pass begins.

First, ensure that your finding device is well-aligned with the telescope itself. You will not be looking through the telescope or camera to take these photos.  You’re flying blind, relying on the finder to set things up. You are adjusting the aim of the telescope throughout the entire pass. The steadier the better, but you still must keep moving to keep the ISS as close to the telescope’s centre of view as possible.

Second, focus is crucial. The ISS is tiny from earth – just a few arc-seconds across. Before the pass focus the telescope as carefully as possible on a star. This is a little easier said than done without having the telescope on a capable telescope mount. I used the moon and also very distant lights to try to focus the spot mac.

Jet 29 July 2017

While I was setting up to shoot the ISS I snapped this distant jet high over Lake Huron. Possibly 30 km or more away.

 

Keep in mind too that if you are using a dSLR your camera is going to shake like made when the mirror and shutter are activated. Every bit of extra motion is a problem. I think an ideal imager for this application would be a mirrorless camera with a full-frame sensor, but I’m not quipped with one of these.

For my first try I used a Nikon D800 camera on video mode. I started running the video before the ISS came into view, and simply kept the telescope pointed at it, moving as smoothly as I could, throughout the pass. Afterward I then exported all of the images using IrfanView, and threw out everything that wasn’t a recognizable image. In other words, nearly all of the resulting frames.

moon from the beach 29 July 2017

Just for the focus. I used the moon as a target to focus the telescope prior to the pass of the ISS on 29 July 2017 visible from the mouth of the Pine River. 

Despite all of the make-shift arrangements, at the end of the day I did capture something with structure. Here are a couple of frames:

ISS 29 Aug 2017 from Pine River

I’ve seen some authors recommending this approach with telescopes on Dobson mounts. This makes a lot of sense too, as these mounts are intended to allow you to point the telescope by hand with ease. I will try to take more images of the ISS as time and opportunity permits. It’s a fascinating subject!

Copyright 2017 David Galbraith

 

 

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Looking Forward – And Up – For 2017!

There are a lot of exciting things happening in 2017. Many are covered in detail on large astronomy web sites like Sea and Sky: http://www.seasky.org/astronomy/astronomy-calendar-2017.html

Here are just a few highlights to consider.

11 February 2017 – Lunar Eclipse

Following on from the full moon earlier on the same day, the moon will pass into the edge of the Earth’s shadow for a “penumbral lunar eclipse.” We should be in a great position to see the moon darkening in Ontario.  Here’s a link to a NASA PDF on the event: https://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/LEplot/LEplot2001/LE2017Feb11N.pdf

1 April 2017 – Mercury at Greatest Eastern Elongation

The tiny planet Mercury will be visible in the evening sky in early spring; on 1 April it reaches its greatest eastern elongation, and will be visible in the evening sky at sunset.

7 April 2017 – Jupiter at Opposition

On 7 April the Earth will pass directly between Jupiter and the sun. The planet will be very bright in the night sky, rising at sunset. Even a small telescope should reveal the four Galilean moons of our solar system’s largest planet.

15 June 2017 – Saturn at Opposition

In mid-June Saturn and its magnificent rings will be as bright as possible this year. Like Jupiter in April, at opposition the Earth lies directly between Saturn and the sun. Rising at sunset, the planet will appear as a fully-illuminated disk through a modest telescope, nestled within its amazing rings.

cassini_saturn_orbit_insertion

Saturn will be worth watching in 2017 on another front. The Cassini mission is drawing to a close. Throughout the year, NASA mission controllers are swinging the wonderful car-sized spacecraft through Saturn’s rings for the first time, willing to take risks at the tail end of the voyage. Launched 20 years ago (1997), Cassini reached Saturn in 2004 and has been performing nearly flawlessly ever since. Later in 2017 the mission will be brought to an end and the spacecraft will be plunged into Saturn itself, a fiery demise to ensure that the environments of Titan and the other moons of Saturn are not contaminated. The feature image on this post is an artist’s rendering of Cassini and its attached Huygens probe undergoing the orbital insertion maneuver over Saturn in 2004 (Public Domain image; source NASA: http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA03883).

21 August 2017 – The Great Eclipse

Perhaps one of the big events in 2017 will be the “Great Eclipse” – a total solar eclipse that will cross the continental United States from west to east coasts. On Monday 21 August 2017 the moon will pass directly between the Earth and the Sun, casting a vast circular shadow and giving millions of people a chance to see a true natural spectacle. Totality will pass through states like Kentucky and Tennessee, but from Ontario we will still see a great partial eclipse in the afternoon. Here’s NASA’s posting for eclipse information: http://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/SEplot/SEplot2001/SE2017Aug21T.GIF

13 November 2017 – Close Conjunction of Venus and Jupiter

Just before sunrise Venus and Jupiter will be very close to each other in the sky – just 0.3 degrees apart, or less than the diameter of the full moon.

I hope you can get out and enjoy these and other exciting sky events in 2017! As we get closer to each I will post additional information on viewing – and when possible taking pictures of – these events.

 

Some Coming Attractions: two comets and a dwarf planet

It’s been a while since I put a post together. I thought some of the space exploration highlights to come were worth a note, so here are a few I’m watching develop.

In August of 2014 we’ll be treated to something pretty exciting: a spacecraft is due to go into orbit around a comet. The European Space Agency’s “Rosetta” probe has already done amazing things flying past two asteroids. In August it will be lined up to be captured by the feeble gravity of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. After several weeks of distance observations, the probe will release a little lander named Philae that should touch down on the comet in November.

This October there will be a real “nail-biter” in orbit over Mars. A comet discovered last year by an observatory in Australia, called C/2013 A1 Siding Spring, will come no where near the earth. However, on 1 October it will swing past Mars – very close to Mars, in fact. Mars is, of course, being closely observed by all sorts of spacecraft. NASA currently has two orbiters in action around the Red Planet, and another is on the way. Comets have been described as “dirty snowballs” and this one is expected to be shedding little chunks of rocky dust as it swings past Mars, exposing the spacecraft from earth to a concentrated rain of debris travelling multiple miles per second.  Spacecraft controllers have been working hard to keep their charges safe – but it’s uncharted territory.

In a year’s time, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will make the first close-up recognizance of Pluto. Whether or not you like to think of Pluto as a small planet or a very large Kuiper Belt Object, it’s fascinating territory and the last major body within the “inner” Solar System to have that we’ve never seen close up.

Happy Golden Anniversary Valentina Tereshkova

It is truly sad, but there are some people out there – perhaps more than I’d like to believe, who apply labels to others in an attempt to keep them from achieving their dreams. We all win when someone breaks the mould and flies high. Today, 16 June 2013, is the 50th anniversary of Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova piloting Vostok 6 into space. On 16 June 1963, she became the first women in space, and not as a passenger, either – but as a fully trained, capable space-farer.

According to the Wikipedia entry for General-Major Tereskova (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valentina_Tereshkova), who was know by her airforce handle “Sea Gull,” she has another very interesting distinction (among many). After her two day 1963 space flight she married Cosmonaut Andrian Nikolayev, who flew twice in space himself. Their daughter, Dr. Elena Andriyanovna, is the only person to have parents who were both space travellers (at least so far).

Since General-Major Tereshkova’s ground-breaking (or should I write “space-breaking” instead) flight 50 years ago, a total of 56 women have flown in space. The largest number of these have been aboard the US Space Shuttle, and Canada is very proud to have had two women astronauts to date, too (Dr. Roberta Bondar and Julie Payette).

These path-finding women prove that categories such as male and female do not limit or define what we can do as humans. At least, they should not. Unfortunately for many people, these categories and others such as ethnicity, spiritual or religious tradition, nationality, sexual orientation, or physical or mental abilities, are used as labels to define – and curtail – the aspirations of others. That kind of limited thinking is a form of bullying that our world cannot afford any longer. Let’s hope that the legacy of “Sea Gull” and all space pioneers is a world where our frontiers as individuals and as a species are not limited by anything other than the sizes of our hearts as we rise to meet challenges and fulfil our own potentials.

Copyright © 2013 David Allan Galbraith

Lunokhod 2: The Little Tub That Could

Forty years ago today, on 8 January 1973, the Soviet Union launched the second of two audacious robotic missions to the moon.

While we have been celebrating the current and recent American Mars rover missions – and justly so – the mission of Lunokhod 2 still holds important places in the record books. The Soviet space program was ambitious, and even after the American Apollo program had landed astronauts on the moon and returned them to earth, the Soviet space planners were working on their own long-term goal of exploration and possibly building a lunar base.

The Soviet program made it to an amazing step, with the landing of two rovers on the moon, named Lunokhod 1 and Lunokhod 2. It was on 8 January 1973 that the lander named Luna 21 was launched toward the moon, landing there on 15 January. The complex, bathtub-shaped rover rolled out of the lander on the 16th, and after a checkout period, embarked on a six month exploration of the moon’s surface.

Approximate locations of the two Lunokhod rover missions.

Approximate locations of the two Lunokhod rover missions. Luna 17/Lunokhod 1 landed on the western edge of Mare Imbrium in 1970. Luna 21/Lunokhod 2 landed on the eastern edge of Mare Serenitatis in 1973, about 120 km north of the landing site of Apollo 17.

Lunokhod 1 had also been a success, three years earlier. It had functioned well for ten months, and eventually covered 10 km. Lunokhod 2 travelled further, but ran into trouble, literally, in June of 1973 when it apparently brushed against the wall of a crater. This impact may have knocked debris into vital parts, and over a few days, Lunokhod 2 stopped working.

The Soviet space program’s efforts to reach the moon came to a halt in the 1970s, with tragic failures of the very large launch vehicles that would have been their counterparts to the American Saturn V.

Although it’s been forty years since Lunokhod 2’s mission, that wasn’t the end of the line for Russian lunar rovers. Russia and India are now planning a joint mission in the coming years to put a new, solar-powered rover on the moon’s surface. The  Chandrayaan-2 mission may be launched in 2016, and will feature a lander built in India and a rover built in Russia. Unlike the Lunokhod rovers, which weighed over 1,700 kg each and were powered in part by radioisotopes (for heat; electricity was provided during the lunar day by solar panels), the proposed new rover will be much smaller – perhaps 100 kg – and solar powered).

Sources

NASA has posted photos taken from lunar orbit of the Luna landers and their Lunokhad rovers:

Updates on the timing of the joint Russian-Indian lunar rover mission: