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Capturing the International Space Station (and Imagination)

Credit: Mark Humpage

What is it? – The International Space Station or ISS is a large spacecraft which orbits around Earth. This orbit allows the ISS to be reached by launch vehicles (such as the Space Shuttle) of all the international partners for the delivery of crews and supplies. It is the largest and most complex international scientific project in history. The ISS is the size of a football pitch fitted with almost an acre of solar panels that provide electrical power to six state-of-the-art laboratories.

Can the ISS be seen from Earth? – Yes, it travels at an amazing 17,000 mph and orbits earth at an altitude of approximately 250 miles. The sheer size of the structure and array of solar panels reflect sunlight, making it the biggest, brightest object orbiting earth. Only the sun and moon are brighter. It can easily be seen moving across the night sky, at certain times, almost resembling a slow moving fireball.

How do you capture it on camera? – With a bit of planning and the right equipment it can easily be captured on camera:-

Planning – Firstly, one needs to calculate at what time the ISS will pass over the skies above. This can easily be found by visiting a website: www.heavens-above.com which will identify the exact days and times at when the ISS will pass directly above one’s location, and which part of the sky to look. There are also a number of excellent mobile applications such as ‘GoSatWatch’ and ‘Flyby’ which allow this to be done remotely.

Credit: Mark Humpage

Execution – A good ISS capture will require a long exposure. A tripod is therefore required to keep the camera nice and steady. A wide angle lens will ensure maximising as much of the ISS flyby which can travel across the entire horizon. Personally, I use the Olympus 7-14mm or 8mm fisheye which are ideal lenses. Try to locate a foreground object of interest within the frame, a line of trees or buildings in order to give the image perspective and scale. Set the camera to manual and use long exposure times of anything between 15 and 30 seconds. With camera primed and in position all that is left now is to wait for the ISS to enter the field of view. By capturing a single or number of continuous exposures the resulting image(s) will reveal a long trail across the frame. Capturing numerous and continuous images will allow you to stack and produce a composite, which can produce stunning results.

ISS Double flyby photo (bottom) – For this ISS double flyby image I chose a location that offered a good foreground subject (water) and scope to cover the entire east/west horizon. Planning involved choosing an evening where the ISS would fly over my location numerous times (in one night) and a look at the weather forecast to ensure clear skies. Armed with a one man tent and all my camera gear I headed off and arrived on site late evening on June 11th. The first ISS pass was due at 2300hrs and subsequent passes every 90 mins. The plan was twofold 1) Set up one camera waterside and take continuous 15sec exposures for the entire night 2) Use a second camera for each ISS pass in different locations at the site. In between passes I would grab a short power nap huddled in the tent. Not a very comfortable evening but the resulting images made up for it. Using stacking software I produced two composite images, one detailing the ISS passes alone and the other including a star trail from the entire evening.

The star trails and bright light (moon) is the resulting visible effect of earth’s rotation. The location choice was also perfect as the morning mist makes for an eerie scene, perfectly complementing the ISS pass. The images made the national press the following day, which was very pleasing. One final word about capturing the ISS – it is due to be decommissioned (crashed into the sea) in 2020, so be quick!

Captured with Olympus E5 & 8mm fisheye – 2 ISS flybys, each comprising approx 12 images. Final stacked composite Credit: Mark Humpage

The World’s Unluckiest Stargazer! – Fingers Crossed For The Perseids?

I am the dead albatross on your boat.

I am the peacock feather in the house.

I am horseshoe carelessly nailed upside down so all the good luck falls out down a grid.

If you ever see me coming to stand next to you at a star party, meteor shower, or eclipse, you have permission to make the cross sign with your fingers and run backwards as fast as you can.

That’s because, for my 33 and a half years of sky gazing, I have managed to cause cloudy skies and inclement weather at every single major event I have attended.

Just for the record, I’m a keen amateur astronomer without a telescope. I follow as many Twitter astro accounts as I can, avidly retweeting the latest data from Cassini, and following lonely Mars landers as they bump across rusty rocks. I cried the first time I saw the ISS, and as a child, I used to stand in the garden with a compass, straining hard to see the northern lights. I never did.

My bad luck began in earnest when I went to Cornwall for the eclipse. A boyfriend and I spent a small fortune hiring out a dank, uncomfortable cottage in the middle of nowhere. I was so excited that I woke up at 6.30am every morning, causing us to be grey faced and exhausted for the whole pitiful ‘holiday.’ And of course, on the big day, there was 100% cloud cover and it was so cold we had to wear gloves.

One night, me and the chap were out in Sefton Park, Liverpool, admiring a wonderful conjunction of several planets dancing around a new moon like fairy lights. Flushed with happiness, we went in and congratulated ourselves for figuring out how to use a planisphere.  Next morning we were mortified to find out aurora had been visible ten minutes after we went in.

And indeed, only last week, I was photographing some incredible clouds where I live in Bristol, only to be told a short while later that even more aurora had decided to shimmy their way on to the sky’s stage while I had my back turned.

I travelled to America last year, and on my first night, I was so jetlagged that I shut the blind to keep out an incredibly bright moon. Mr Moon was very cross at my ignorance, and proceeded to turn bright red with rage, causing me to miss a spectacular lunar eclipse.

But the thing I have had the LEAST luck with…is meteor showers. I have stood out in back gardens and dark fields trying to catch a glimpse of these fleeting sky streaks at least three times a year from the age of 15. And guess what? Except for ONE Leonid I saw, cutting through soupy orange cloud two years ago, I have not had ANY luck. Truly disheartening.

That is, if you forget about last year. I was in Portland, on the west coast of America. Through a set of remarkable coincidences, which really do make me wonder if we are being pulled through our lives by twinkling cosmic threads, I ended up meeting some wonderful people who shared my love of all things that require tipping your chin up to 90 degrees to observe.

They took me out to a pitch-black nature reserve, bundled up with blankets and deckchairs, as bullfrogs boomed in the blackness, and baby racoons cavorted in the undergrowth.

On that magical, starry, starry night, we counted several hundred Perseids, each one causing me to gasp and grip the arm of my chair. One of the most memorable experiences of my life and one I long to repeat.

So. Will I be turning my head skywards for the Perseids this year? Of course I will. But judging from past form, I’d say, chances are, Bristol is not going to enjoy clear skies. I just seem to have that unfortunate effect on the sky over my head.

So if there are any astronomers in the Bristol area hoping for a good viewing, you may want to drive me out of town with planks and pitchforks. Either that, or take a trip to Inverness.

Follow me for further antics on twitter, I am @RadioVicky

The Meteorwatch Meteor Map

You are outside, the night sky is clear, you look up and then WOOSH! You see a shooting star!

If you see a shooting star this week will probably be a Perseid from the Perseid meteor shower.

Like most things in astronomy, you don’t need expensive telescopes or equipment to enjoy the Perseids; you just need to be comfortable and patient. Please see here on how to enjoy observing meteors.

When you see a meteor, share your experience on twitter by tweeting what you saw for the meteor map.

 

The meteor map displays tweets of meteors seen by location and is very simple and fun to use.

Tweet the hashtag #meteorwatch then the first part of your postcode, then your country code and then optionally how many meteors you saw. Your results will then be displayed on the map shortly afterwards. Instructions can be found at the bottom of the map page.

Let’s see how many people saw a meteor or more?

Seven Best National Trust Sites for Star Gazing

 

If you are looking for a great spot to see the shooting stars of the Perseids  away from bright lights and light pollution, there are some very good National Trust sites you can go to in the UK.

These sites are ideal for all kinds of stargazing any time of the year and are set in some of the most beautiful locations in the country

The seven best National Trust sites for star gazing and see the wonders of the night sky are:

 

  • Black Down in Sussex – Get closer to the stars on the highest point in the South Downs, just over a mile from the town of Haslemere.

 

Download the guide for Black Down

  • Teign Valley in Devon – Discover the stars at this Trust property within Dartmoor National Park and close to Castle Drogo.

 Download the guide for Teign Valley

  • Penbryn Beach in Wales – Beautiful, unspoilt mile-long beach on the Ceredigion coast in west Wales, great for a bit of star gazing and a late night paddle.

 Download the guide for Penbryn Beach

  • Stonehenge Landscape in Wiltshire – Step back in time and discover the ancient skies of Salisbury Plain’s chalk downlands, home to the impressive prehistoric stone monument.

 Download the guide for Stonehenge Landscape

  • Wicken Fen National Nature Reserve in Cambridgeshire – Close to historic Ely, the wild landscape of the National Trust’s oldest nature reserve offers dark skies and a wealth of nocturnal wildlife to listen out for.

 Download the guide for Wicken Fen

  • Mam Tor in Derbyshire – Escape the bright city lights of Sheffield and experience the peace and tranquillity of Mam Tor’s dark skies in the Peak District.

Download the guide for Mam Tor

  • Friar’s Crag in Cumbria – Surrounded by the breathtakingly beautiful scenery of the Lake District, Friar’s Crag in Keswick juts out into the spectacular lake of Derwentwater; a restful place to contemplate the world above us.

 Download the guide for Friar’s Crag

 

More information about all of these sites is available by visiting: http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/darkskies and enjoy stargazing and meteorwatch at these fabulous locations.

The Great Perseid Meteorwatch

Thursday 11th to Sunday 14th of August 2011

From Thursday 11th to Saturday 13th of August 2011 @VirtualAstro on Twitter with the help of The National Trust, Universe Today, Royal Astronomical Society and many more, will be holding a Twitter Meteorwatch for the Perseid Meteor Shower.

Everyone is welcome to join in, whether they are an astronomer, have a slight interest in the night sky or just wonder?

As well as looking up, enjoying the night sky with us and seeing meteors, maybe for the first time? You will have the opportunity to contribute for fun with images and online, or to Science if you wish, by tweeting and seeing your results on a map, or by submitting Observing Forms if you are a more serious observer.

This event follows on from the popular Twitter Meteorwatch held in August and December of 2009 and 2010 “Meteorwatch 2009”

Use the hash tag: #Meteorwatch and get involved, ask questions, do some science, follow the event and enjoy the wonders of the night sky with us. Images and other information will be tweeted as it happens. Live!

Join in on Twitter, Facebook and Google+

The highlight of the summer meteor showers: The Perseids reach maximum around the 12th/ 13th of August and may put on a display of approximately 80 to 100 meteors per hour under ideal viewing conditions.

Conditions this year aren’t ideal due to there being a full moon, but the brighter meteors will be seen. Let’s hope the skies stay clear.

Perseid meteors are often bright with persistent trails which can linger for a while after the meteor has burned up. Further information on the Perseid meteor shower and how to view it, can be found here.

While you are looking for meteors, there will be other objects to look out for such as the Planet Jupiter late in the evening, the Milky Way, Summer Triangle, manmade Satellites and more.

The Twitter Meteorwatch will start at 21.00 BST on the 11th of August and will continue through to the evening of the 13th. Amateur and professional astronomers and stargazers from the US and other countries are invited to join in and take over from the UK, when the sun comes up here, helping make the event run continuously and be truly international.

Watch the awesome new trailer here….

 

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