NOTE: This is a guest post and images are Copyright Canadian photographer Quin Barrie

Ever since broadband came to my neighborhood, I’ve been watching “NASA TV” online and following the Space Shuttle launches and missions. With every mission, it’s been awe-inspiring to learn of the unbelievable complexity of the Space Shuttle and Station, and of the massively dangerous task of space flight.

While snooping around one of the many spectacular image archives at nasa.gov, I found a link to the ‘Sighting Opportunities’ page for the Shuttle and ISS. I went there and entered in my location info, and it returned a list of times when the Shuttle and ISS would be flying over my area – at a mere 17,500 mph and just 200 nautical miles overhead!
shuttle2-sm

Über cool!! I had to check this out, and if possible, get photos. So, I jotted down the times and deciphered the Shuttle’s inbound and outbound directions and elevations, and headed out into the sunset with my Rebel and tripod. I set my cam and lens to full manual with a 20 second exposure at f6 ISO 100, and waited to see what there was to see. I thought it would only be like when you glimpse a satellite in the night sky…a barely visible but steadily moving pin-point of light against the stars…But not so!!

After a while of scanning, I noticed this star about 30 degrees above the horizon. Then I noticed it was moving! Another airplane? Nope, no blinking lights. OMG, That’s it!! Look at it go! I frantically aimed my camera and fired the shutter. I watched almost giddy as it gradually climbed overhead, repointing my cam and shooting again after each time exposure. The sun had long set, but the Shuttle and Station were still catching the full sunlight 200 miles up and making it shine like a star!

It was simply stunning to watch this point of light arcing across the sky knowing what it was – witnessing a the most complex machine ever built by man with 6 people on board, attached to a huge space complex with 3 crew on board – all racing by at mach 22, just 150 ticks outside the earth’s atmosphere. Simply awesome!! I got the last shot as it faded silently away into the earth’s shadow.

shuttle1-sm

Every time I get the opportunity for a sighting, it’s just as thrilling – as much for what it is, as for the challenge of capturing the fleeting image against the odds of manual focusing and composing in the dark, the threat of clouds and the brevity of the event. For shooting, I normally use a 15 to 30 second time exposure (depending on remaining light), at around f4 and ISO 100 or 200 to reduce noise in the sky. The lens is focused to infinity in manual mode, and I always shoot RAW. I’ll usually vary the zoom in the 18 to 50mm range depending on the shot, but it always looks best if you can get the horizon or tree tops in frame to create a sense of scale.

The Shuttle and Station actually orbit the Earth every 90 minutes, but since neither have marker lights, sightings only occur around twilight when it reflects the sun’s rays from over the horizon and it’s set off against the evening sky.

For the Shuttle and Space Station sighting opportunities in your area visit:
http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/realdata/sightings/index.html

Join the conversation! 13 Comments

  1. He’s taken some great shots there!

  2. It truly is awesome to watch the ISS travel overhead. Another treat is to listen to the amateur radio frequencies to listen for a conversation. If you have a VHF receiving radio, listen to 145.80 Mhz and you might hear one of the astronauts talking to a ground station.

    Being an amateur radio operator I had the thrill of actually talking to Astronaut Susan Helms as I was watching the ISS travel overhead.

    Forgive me for straying off the topic of photography, so here is an idea. Lets take the challenge of photographing the ISS with another element of transportation in the frame.

    Any takers?

  3. @ Andrew Freels & David Ward
    Thanks! ;-)

    @ Eric
    The radio idea would be cool.
    On the first photo, there were actually two spacewalkers outside working on the ISS as it tracked by overhead.

  4. Scott I’m sorry to say you have been infected with the space virus!! I’ve had it since I was 8, I’m 56 now. Now the next thing you need to do is contact your congress person and request VIP tickets for a launch. The tickets will get you about 5 miles away. You have to know an astronaut or really be a VIP, like you, to get closer (3.5 miles). I went to the May 2008 launch and with my Nikon D40x and 70 to 300 zoom. I got about 400 shots in the 3 minutes you can see it. Including SRB separation. One word of warning, be prepared for the earth to shake about 30 seconds after launch when the sound gets to you. Best sub-woofer experience you’ll ever have.

    The next launch is Feb 12, 2009. You need to do this quickly because there are only 9 launches left until the shuttles are retired in 2010.

  5. great guest post and photos. but then I’m a photo & space nut too :)

    if you like to check for sightings but are away from your computer, you can get s/w like PocketSat+ for your handheld (Palm or WinMobile – sadly haven’t found anything equivalent for iPhone yet). You can download the orbital elements data for the ISS or any other bright satellite or Shuttle, and it calculates sighting opportunities for your location while out in the field. graphically maps them too. I suppose with your iPhone you might find the necessary info via Safari (but the Nasa sighting pages seem to be Java), but anyhow I used to enjoy using PocketSat before switching from Palm to iPhone.

    ISS and Shuttle sightings are even better when you’re away from the light pollution of the big cities. while winter camping in 2003 in B.C. Interior I remember watching the ISS/Shuttle pass overhead, it was the night or two before the tragic STS-107 Columbia re-entry :-(

    anyhow your post reminds me there won’t be many more flights before Shuttle retirement – time to go try some more sightings. and maybe try some photos of ISS too

  6. I’ve been shooting this stuff for years, having taken my first astrophoto in the early 1980’s. Another useful site for shuttle/ISS/satellite passes is http://www.heavens-above.com. I’ve got predictions for my front yard, plus my observatory.

    Here’s one of the shuttle/ISS traveling over my observatory (if the link works)

  7. Thanks Quin. This was a great post and I am certainly going to give this a look myself.

  8. Heavens-Above is how I usually check for pass information. Remember the negative (-) magnitude numbers are the brighter passes. A -2 will be really easy to see, even in some urbanized areas.

  9. LOL! You can actually track the lost tool bag (from STS 126) on that heavens-above site!

    Btw, here’s another tip or two I forgot to mention about night shooting.
    Prior to going out, check your lens’ manual focus setting at infinity. I’ve found the infinity marking is not necessarily giving the sharpest focus, varying with zoom position. Sometimes you have to make notes where the sharpest focus is + or – of infinity at each favored zoom length. Fortunately, my Sigma 18-50 is fairly accurate, actually focusing on the infinity line. That line is all I’ve got when I’m a fumbling idiot in the dark, as I will invariably goof the focus repeadedly by accidently turning the ring with the zoom.
    And, don’t forget your penlight, (preferably with a red gel to protect your night vision). :)

  10. Nice job these are great! Thanks for the info too! I took this last month when we could see the moon with Jupiter and Venus. http://flickr.com/photos/adammillerdesign/3082454966/

  11. […] Nighttime Photography – Shuttle & International Space Station – TWIP […]

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About scottbourne

Founder of Photofocus.com. Retired traveling and unhooking from the Internet.

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