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

 

 

Get ready for AstroCATS 2014: Canada’s Astronomy Trade Show!

The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada – Hamilton Centre is presenting the second annual Canadian Astronomy Trade Show, AstroCATS, on 3-4 May, 2014!

The web site for this exciting event is: http://www.astrocats.ca/

The big show will open at 10 AM on Saturday 3 May, and close at 6. On Sunday it opens again at 10 and closes at 4. AstroCATS 2014 will be held in the David Braley Athletic & Recreation Centre at Mohawk College, 135 Fennell Ave. West, Hamilton L9C 1E9.

Visit the web site to find lists of vendors, special speakers, and all of the exciting highlights planned for the show in May. Hope to see you there!

Supernova SN 2014J in Ursa Minor

On 22 January 2014, S. J. Fossey discovered a supernova, designated SN 2014J, in the Cigar Galaxy, Messier 82. It’s turned out to be the brightest of its type visible in the Northern Hemisphere in living memory. M82 is in Ursa Major, nice and high in the night sky for those of is in the Great White North! It is not visible to the unaided eye, clocking in at about Magnitude 11.5, but that’s well within the capability of a home telescope on a dark night to spot, and especially with a short exposure with a digital camera on a 4″ or 5″ telescope.

I wanted to see if I could take an image of the supernova from my livingroom couch, and so used a simple web form to request an image be taken by the MicroObservatory Network in Arizona. Anyone can use this free educational system, using the on-line forms at: http://mo-www.harvard.edu/MicroObservatory/

The simple icon-driven menu asks for subject, field of view, and exposure time. All the rest is automated. I sent the request in on 25 January, and on the afternoon of the 26th I received an email message from the system indicating that an image was ready. Here’s the result. The supernova is the bright star to the right of centre of the irregular galaxy.

SN2014J in M82 20140126

Supernova SN 2014J is visible between the hair lines along the right side of this image. The cloudy mass is the Cigar Galaxy, Messire 82, in Ursa Major. This is an uncropped image as provided by the MicroObservatory Network. See the text for description. Click on the image to see it scales a little better.

The fact that the galaxy is so far over to the right side of the frame is the result of errors in the on-line system. It amounts to perhaps a 10th of a degree or less, but that’s enough to put things way off of centre. Given that this is a free, public-access system, you can’t complain too much! I wish I had had access to a system like this as a child – this and other robotic telescope systems now available to the public would make for amazing science fair projects! I have an article in a forthcoming issue of the Hamilton Amateur Astronomer’s newsletter The Event Horizon on robotic observatories, which I find a very nice way of avoiding the cold outside conditions of astronomy in Canada in the winter. Yes, I’m a wimp, but I’m a warm wimp.

Copyright © 2014 David Allan Galbraith

Public Access Astronomy: the MicroObservatory Robotic Telescope Network

The MicroObservatory Robotic Telescope Network, operated by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics OWN “Observing With NASA” program allows free, public access use of 6″ reflecting telescopes located at the Whipple Observatory in Amado, Arizona. If you are a teacher interested in introducing astronomy in a hands-on way, a parent wanting to show kids that they can also take astrophotos, or just interested in experiencing with Internet-based remote observatories, making use of this free system is well worth a try. This system has been in use for over a decade and is a lot of fun.

The network can be reached at: http://mo-www.cfa.harvard.edu/MicroObservatory/

Guest users can select from a pre-set menu of target objects. In December 2013 I tried shooting images of several deep space targets over successive nights. The 6″ reflectors (identified as Ed, Ben and Cecilia, Donald) are programmed with a simple web form. Once images are captured, users are sent an email message with instructions on how to retrieve the files. The files are all returned as 650 x 500 FITS files. The network also supplies MicroObservatoryImage, a free program based on Java that processes FITS files, including stacking RGB images, optimised for the small images the system produces.

The web site is well worth exploring, as there are several resources there of interest to teachers, especially.

Here are three images I captured with this system in December 2013. The images I was able to capture did suffer from several artifacts, including diffraction spikes, and “blooms” produced by very bright stars.

The Cab Nebula (Messier 1) imaged with one of the educational telescopes of the  MicroObservatory Robotic Telescope Network.

The Cab Nebula (Messier 1) imaged with one of the educational telescopes of the
MicroObservatory Robotic Telescope Network. Three images were taken, one each through a red, green, and blue filter, and then they were combined with the MicroObseervatoryImage software supplied by the network.

NGC5457, Messier 101, imaged with the MicroObservatory Robotic Telescope Network.

NGC5457, Messier 101, imaged with the MicroObservatory Robotic Telescope Network. This was taken as a single 60 second exposure, taken at 5:37 AM local time on 31 December 2013. The area imaged is approximately one degree of arc across.

orion1 retouched1

The Great Nebula in Orion (M42) imaged in three colours using the MicroObservatory system. The colour image was assembled as described above for the image of the Crab Nebula. This image is slightly retouched to reduce artefacts created by both diffraction effects (spikes) and also “blooms” or smears produced by very bright stars.

Copyright © 2014 David Allan Galbraith

Free Solar Observing Today at Royal Botanical Gardens

We’re going to hold Royal Botanical Gardens’ third “Solar Thursday” today (29 August 2013) from 12 noon to 1 PM, on the lawn area in front of the main visitor entrance to RBG Centre. Everyone’s welcome to join us for a view of the sun through special, safe telescopes.

If you have a solar telescope you are very welcome to join us in presenting the amazing spectacle of the sun to the public. We like to be “open for business” at 12 noon, so coming a little earlier to set up would be helpful. We have electrical power available if your telescope needs it. We start packing things up around 1 PM. RBG is located at 680 Plains Road West, Burlington, Ontario.

We will be looking through specially-equipped telescopes that filter the bright light from the sun. These filters make it safe to observe the sun’s surface. Remember:

No one should ever look directly at the sun without special, appropriate equipment. Permanent eye damage or blindness may result from inappropriate attempts to see the Sun, or the use of incorrect equipment. We will be using telescopes designed specifically for solar observation, or those equipped with filters specifically made for this purpose.

Once you’re familiar with the equipment and have things in focus, you will be able to take in the sights in just a few minutes! Some nice sunspots are visible today.

Katie

Visitors to Royal Botanical Gardens, 680 Plains Road West, Burlington, Ontario enjoying views of the sun live during RBG’s second “Solar Thursday” event, 15 August 2013.

Copyright © 2013 David Allan Galbraith

Enchanted by the Sun

This summer I’ve been delving into solar studies. Perhaps it’s like the proverbial goldfish not noticing the water that surrounds him, but I really hadn’t paid much attention to our nearest star. Last year I did start to take my own look at the sun, using solar filters on an old 80mm f15 refractor, and that was pretty interesting. Somehow the solar bug has really bit me this year.

I’ve added some equipment to Pine River Observatory this year, and that’s helped. In addition to my Meade ETX 125 Terabeam telescope, which I now have equipped with both a Kendrick Astro Mylar solar filter and a Baader Planetarium continuum filter, I picked up a Coronado 60 mm Solar Max II BF15 Hydrogen alpha telescope a couple of months ago. The upshot of all of that is that I can take a look – and am starting to photograph – the sun at two quite different wavelengths, corresponding to different structures on its surface.

There’s an interesting feedback loop here. As I’ve been able to see the sun for myself, and consider how to take photos, and even explain what can be seen through a telescope to others taking a look, I’ve found that my curiosity has risen. I’ve been reading more, seeking out a deeper understanding of what I’m seeing. That in turn has made my observations a little better, I think, and certainly has meant I’m doing a better job of interpreting for others.

It’s also been exciting to see that there’s a lot happening in terms of science and solar observation right now. Consider these three news items from the past month alone:

  • A new ground-based solar telescope (the New Solar Telescope or NST) at the Big Bear Observatory in California has just started to produce incredible images of the photosphere and sunspots – with a resolving power that approaches 30 miles on the sun’s surface (http://www.bbso.njit.edu/)
  • A new solar observatory satellite, Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) achieved “first light” in July, and is already transmitting wonderful images back to earth (http://iris.lmsal.com/)
  • NASA has updated information available on the progress of the present solar maximum. This event, every 11 years or so, is marked by a peak in sunspot numbers, and represents a reversal in the orientation of the sun’s magnetic field. The present solar maximum was anticipated for 20111 but it’s a little late. The magnetic flip is anticipated between now and November.

These are just examples of the activity around solar observations in the past little while. The more I’ve read, too, the more I want to find out. The sun is quite addictive! More postings to come.

sun aug 2013

The sun’s “surface,” or photosphere, photographed from Burlington, Ontario’s LaSalle Park Marina on the morning of Monday 5 August 2013. This image was captured using a Meade ETX 125 TB telescope equipped with a Kendrick Astro Mylar solar filter and a Baader Planetarium continuum filter. These filters produce a green image that highlights contrast around sunspots and solar granulations. The image is a mosaic of two shots taken with a Nikon D5100 at prime focus, as the image produced by the telescope is larger than the D5100’s APS-C-sized sensor. The image was processed with Paint.net, a free image processing program. Although we might think of the sun as a big ball of hot gas it’s structure is much more remarkable than that. At its core the density is enormous – a liter of the gasses would weight 150 kg. At the surface we can see, as in this photo, the density is less than 1% of that of our own atmosphere at ground level.

 

Copyright © 2013 David Allan Galbraith

 

Solar Thursdays at Royal Botanical Gardens Start This Week!

Would you like to take a look at the sun, just for fun? Are you going to visit Royal Botanical Gardens (http://www.rbg.ca) on Thursdays this summer, or just in the neighborhood? Introducing “Solar Thursdays” – a weekly one-hour chance for visitors to  directly see features on our nearest star, the Sun, at RBG.
Solar Thursdays are a chance to see the sun through specially-equipped telescopes. We’ll be set up from 12 noon – 1 PM in July and into August, weather permitting. Some clouds will be OK, but heavy clouds will mean cancellation. We’ll be on the lawn in front of the main entrance to RBG Centre. There’s also a chance that other local astronomers might join in and bring along their own solar-equipped ‘scopes, too! Our address is 680 Plains Road West, Burlington, Ontario. Parking is free. We hope you’ll visit RBG after your look at the sun.
On Thursday we’ll likely see sunspots and solar prominences.  We’ll also have a solar weather update on hand. This offering is free of charge, and is being presented by RBG staff on their lunch hour.
scope

Visit us on the front lawn of Royal Botanical Gardens Centre, 680 Plains Road West, Burlington, Ontario, for Solar Thursdays! Here a visitor takes a turn looking at the sun with a Coronado 60 mm Solar Max II BF15 H-alpha telescope.

We will be looking through specially-equipped telescopes that filter the bright light from the sun. These filters make it safe to observe the sun’s surface. Remember:

No one should ever look directly at the sun without special, appropriate equipment. Permanent eye damage or blindness may result from inappropriate attempts to see the Sun, or the use of incorrect equipment. We will be using telescopes designed specifically for solar observation, or those equipped with filters specifically made for this purpose.

Once you’re familiar with the equipment and have things in focus, you will be able to take in the sights in just a few minutes.

sun

The sun photographed on 23 July 2013 from the front lawn of Royal Botanical Gardens, by using eyepiece projection and a Sony pocket camera. Several prominences are visible in this view through a Coronado 60 mm Solar Max II BF15 telescope.

We hope to see you there!

Copyright © 2013 David Allan Galbraith