Hunting the Elusive International Space Station

The International Space Station (ISS) is a wonderful example of what humanity can do if we set aside our squabbles. It’s also readily available to view from many locations on earth, as it orbits overhead. I’ve been very impressed by some astrophotographers who have been able to capture photos of the ISS from the ground, and have been trying out a few things myself.

On Saturday 5 August 2017 I was able to get my best pictures to date, shooting from Pier 8 at Hamilton Harbour. The Space Station made a fairly leisurely pass just before 10 PM, arching up to 30 degrees above the horizon. I set up two cameras for the pass. One, with a wide angle lense, snapped away 30 second time exposures every 33 seconds, to create a background star trail image. Onto this I was able to add graphics showing constellations and trace out the course of the ISS:

Layout 2 5 Aug 2017 copyright D Galbraith

The International Space Station (blue traces and inserts) passing north of Hamilton, Ontario on 5 August 2017. The blue trace was superimposed over top of the original track of the station captured on a series of 30 second exposures stacked with StarStaX. The inset images are from the composite below. The view is looking roughly north. 

The second camera was mounted on my 125mm Meade Terabeam Maksutov-Cassegrain telescope on a photography tripod. I aimed this my hand and took both individual photos and video of the station at it passed. While most of the shots were smeared, a few recorded a little recognizable ISS detail:

Layout 1 5 Aug 2017 copyright D Galbraith

Some of the better individual images of the International Space Station photographed over Hamilton, Ontario on 5 August 2017. The gold “wings” visible in the images are the stations large solar panels. Images earlier and later in the sequence definitely show differences in aspect as the station rotates slowly to keep its solar panels aligned with the sun.

While these are not nearly as good as some photos taken by experts such as France’s Thierry Legault ( I’m still pretty pleased.

Post and images are copyright 2017 David Galbraith.

A New Year, a New Night-Time Photography Class!

I’m happy to report that Royal Botanical Gardens has asked me to lead another Night-Time Photography class! If we get sufficient response, we’ll start at 7 PM on the evening of Thursday 26 January 2017, at RBG’s Nature Interpretive Centre. The class will run for a total of four sessions, weekly.

The class will be a hands-on opportunity to take photos at night, with an emphasis on capturing beautiful images of the sky. We’ll cover equipment, celestial objects, post-photography processing, and more. This isn’t an astronomy class per se, but we will talk a bit about astronomy. By the end of the course I am hoping everyone will feel confident going out at night with their cameras and experimenting with capturing beautiful images.

We’ll try to end each two hour classroom experience with a quick dash outside to see be seen. Guidance will also be given on photo opportunities taking place between classes.

RBG’s public program calendar is available on-line at:

You can register on-line for any of the RBG programs at:

To find the Night-Time Photography course, just click 26 January 2017 on the calendar on the web site. Registration is limited to 20.

If you are planning to take the course, please contact me ahead of time for more information. It’s recommended that participants bring their digital cameras and tripods to the first class. Digital cameras should be able to be operated completely manually. A wide-angle lens is best for this sort of photography. Tripods should be very sturdy. I can make recommendations if anyone has any questions.



Night-Time Photography Cancelled

Unfortunately there haven’t been enough takers this year for the Night-Time Photography short course that Royal Botanical Gardens has asked me to present to go ahead. The course has been cancelled.

A stacked star-trails image captured

A stacked star-trails image captured along the shores of Lake Huron.

When I do offer this three night course, the program is all about learning to take photographs of the night sky with a digital camera. Ideal equipment includes any digital SLR and wide-angle lens, tripod, and remote or cable release. Other digital cameras may be usable, but it will depend on whether you can take complete manual control over the camera. Functions like ISO rating, shutter speed, aperture, colour temperature and focus should all be able to be controlled manually to get the most of out night-time photography.

The Burlington Waterfront in December 2013, photographed early on e morning.

The Burlington Waterfront in December 2013, photographed early one morning.

We talk a little about telescopes, and there’s a chance to try out some telescope photography, too. However, this introductory program is intended to help you take beautiful images of landscapes and the sky at night, especially those with interesting skies and night-time city-scapes. Subjects covered include basic camera operations, composition, planning for photography at night, controlling long exposures, and computer software for various functions such as stacking star trail images.

The Burlington Waterfront and Pier before dawn.

The Burlington Waterfront and Pier before dawn.

Our first evening together is usually in a classroom. The subsequent meetings are outdoors. Locations are chosen depending on the weather and class interest. Excellent opportunities for interesting night-time photos are often to be had along the edges of Hamilton Harbour (such as at La Salle Park Marina) or along the Burlington waterfront.

Consellation Oroion rising over a surbab street in Burlington, Ontario, on the evening of 2013 March 26. Betelgeuse, the brightest star in Orion, is in the middle of the frame and about 1/8th of the way down from the top.

Constellation Orion rising over a suburban street in Burlington, Ontario, on the evening of 23 March 2013. Betelgeuse, the brightest star in Orion, is in the middle of the frame and about 1/8th of the way down from the top.


The moon photographed early on the morning of 29 August 2013.

The moon photographed early on the morning of 29 August 2013. Yes, this one was taken with a telescope.

I hope the program will be invited once again. I’ll post updates if that happens.

Sidewalk Astronomy Tonight in Hamilton

Following weeks of miserable weather for astronomers, tonight and tomorrow night look marvellously clear in the Hamilton area. You can follow that sort of thing on-line every day in detail with the Clear Sky Chart web site: (Dark blue is “good”).

Tonight, recommended is a view of Saturn, which will be due south of us at 10 PM, at a bit over 35 degrees above the horizon. The moon is waxing (getting fuller) and just past 50% illuminated. It will be a bit to the west of Saturn tonight. A modest telescope should show Saturn’s rings and some of the moons; binoculars will show the creamy overall colour of the planet but the rings will not be visible.

If you are mobile you might like to join the Hamilton Amateur Astronomers tonight at the T. B. McQuesten Park (corner of Upper Wentworth and the Linc) for some “Sidewalk Astronomy.” Members come out with telescopes on nice nights to give free demos to the public. I’m planning on arriving a little before sunset, perhaps 8:45.

Probing Deep Space from an Urban Apartment Balcony

Living in a large urban centre in a small apartment just one level off of the ground has its challenges for astronomy. First of all, I don’t have a garage or other place I can conveniently store my equipment; many astronomers I know have a space set up in a garage or shed where they can keep their gear at close to outdoor temperature all year. No such luck here. Second, my “at home” viewing area is a concrete balcony that is, I suppose, about 6 square meters at the most. It projects out to the west, which means I do see some nice sunsets, but my particular view is also pretty much obscured by trees, houses, and in my case part of the Niagara Escarpment. I also have the balcony of the apartment above mine right above mine, which means I can’t put a telescope on the balcony and see the zenith – straight up.

It’s also taken my a while to work out the geometry of the building. From the farthest out I can put a telescope on my balcony, Polaris just peeks over the top of the building, in the direction of a flood light that shines down on our parking area, which means that it’s virtually impossible to get a good polar alignment optically.

Not exactly a dark sky area.

Still, the urge to observe and photograph is strong, and a few things are amenable to urban star watchers even under less than ideal circumstances. The first thing is the moon. While nothing will move clouds out of the way, even in the most light-polluted areas the moon is still a great view. on a clear night Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, and Venus are all observable from cities too. They are so bright in comparison to stars and deep sky objects like galaxies and nebulae that there’s enough contrast to see them pretty well. Even the Galilean moons of Jupiter are pretty reliable from urban vantage.

My particular balcony’s situation means that in late winter evening views bring the Constellation Orion into view. Right now, Jupiter isn’t far off of Orion, and once a month the moon makes an appearance in the area, too. I was pretty happy, therefore, to see a clear evening on Sunday 17 March 2013 – and all three swung into view.

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The Constellation Orion and the moon presented a lovely view from my apartment in Hamilton on 17 March 2013.

The sky around Orion is particularly rich in interesting objects, and it’s one of my favourite parts of the sky. As soon as I could get a clear view of the area from Orion to the Pleiades, just to the east of Orion and past the moon, I set up a camera and took some overall photos with a wide-angle lens. The brightest individual objects in the sky were the moon and Jupiter, very near by. These two bright objects were great to capture with a telephoto lens.

The moon and Jupiter passed within three degrees of each other on the evening of 17 March 2013. Photographed with a Nikon D800 full-frame dSLR on a Sigma 150-500 mm telephoto lens at 500 mm. ISO 1250, 1/1000 sec exposure, f/5.3

The moon and Jupiter passed within three degrees of each other on the evening of 17 March 2013. The view with a 500 mm telephoto lens and camera on a tripod.

After a few photos of the overall scene I concentrated on the moon for a bit. Actually, this is a bit of a literary slight-of-hand, because I’d been preparing to use a telescope for a little while on the 17th, and had set up my big EQ6Pro telescope mount ahead of time. I settled on an approximate alignment to Polaris as “close enough for apartment work” and then mounted my old 80 mm f/15 refracting telescope on the mount. With a focal length of 1,500 mm this long white telescope gives nice views of the moon. I took a few shots at 1/100 of a second, ISO 400.

The moon, photographed on 17 March 2013 from an apartment balcony in Hamilton, Ontario, with an 80 mm f/15 refracting telescope and Nikon D800 camera.

The moon, photographed on 17 March 2013 from an apartment balcony in Hamilton, Ontario, with an 80 mm f/15 refracting telescope and Nikon D800 camera.

The view of the moon was nice on the 17th. The terminator was passing through the Sea of Tranquility, meaning that the landing site of the 1969 Apollo 11 mission was likely just experiencing sunrise. Crater Theophilus, one of my favourites, was nicely illuminated. The image above is the whole image, reduced in resolution. Below is a section centred near Theophilus cropped but not reduced in resolution. The Apollo 11 landing site was approximately in the middle of this view left to right, and just below the top edge of the frame.

A portion of the photo of the moon above, taken on 17 March 2013, unreduced in resolution.

A portion of the photo of the moon above, taken on 17 March 2013, unreduced in resolution. Crater Theophilus is near the middle of this view, with a four-peaked mountain in its centre, just caught by the morning rays of the sun.

Once I had my fill of the moon I decided to go after a deep sky prize for the first time: the Great Nebula in Orion, or M42. This is an amazing region of space, about 1000 light-years away, where new stars are being born in huge clouds of gas and dust. We can see this nebula (Latin for cloud) with our own eyes on a clear night. It’s the middle “star” in the “sword” hanging down from Orion’s belt. It’s even visible on the wide-angle photo at the beginning of this post, looking like a star.

The EQ6Pro mount I was using is equipped with a digital inventor of many objects in the sky. I simply entered “M42” in the keypad and the mount took over, pointing the telescope right at the nebula! I took a few photos right away. My biggest challenge was focusing the telescope. I was not able to see any stars at all through the camera viewfinder. I took a series of exposures, adjusting focus between each one. I was really happy to see something of the nebula, though. The photo below was among the better of the group, taken with the Nikon D800 at ISO 6400, 15 second exposure.

My first photo of th Great Nebula in Orion - M42. Lots of room for improvement.

My first photo of th Great Nebula in Orion – M42. The good news? Lots of room for improvement.

One of the cardinal rules in using a telescope, especially for photography, is that it’s best if the telescope itself is at the same temperature as the air. When I started my March 17 observing I set out a larger telescope, a Sky-Watcher 200 mm f/5 Newtonian reflector (focal length 1000 mm, designed for imaging), on the balcony to cool down. By the time I was ready to try something more challenging than the moon, it was ready. I set this larger scope onto the mount and re-aligned it. What a difference! The larger diameter of this telescope – 200 mm compared to 80 mm for the refractor – gathers a lot more light. With the camera on live-view I was immediately able to see the four central stars in the nebula, known as the Trapezium, and focus the telescope on them. After experimenting with exposures I settled on ISO 640 and 30 seconds, and was quietly pleased with the results. This is just a first stab at a “deep sky object” for me, but it looks promising, especially for those times to come when I will be able to align the mount a little better (eliminating the slight streaking of the stars into trails visible here), and get out of areas of intense light pollution (which improves contrast and detail in astrophotography).

The Great Nebula in Orion photographed with a 200mm Newtonian Telescope, 17 Marhc 2013.

The Great Nebula in Orion photographed with a 200mm Newtonian Telescope, 17 March 2013, from an apartment balcony in Hamilton, Ontario.

The relative sizes of the images I’ve presented here are a little misleading. The nebula is about a degree across in the sky, compared to half a degree for the moon. Much less detail came through on M42 because the moon is so much brighter that it shone through the sky glow of urban light pollution, and because among other things it required a much shorter exposure. Also, the 80 mm refractor has a focal length of 1500 mm, while the much beefier-looking Newtonian is just 1000 mm. Like camera lenses, this means that the refractor actually magnifies things more than the Newtonian does, and I used the refractor for the images of the moon. It’s also worth noting that having the moon so close to Orion on the 17th made photography of the nebula even harder. Its bright light spills all over the sky, and even into the telescope, reducing usable contrast on the nebula.

Copyright © David Allan Galbraith 2013