Shuttle and ISS transit the Sun

By Phil Plait | September 20, 2006 10:08 pm

Check this out:

What is it? It’s the Shuttle Atlantis (on the left) as it was leaving the International Space Station on September 17. It was taken from the ground by astrophotographer extraordinaire Thierry Legault. Most people don’t know that, under the right conditions, you can use a telescope to actually see the Shuttle and ISS this clearly — and even then it ain’t easy.

But what makes this so fracking cool is that this isn’t any old picture: the two space-borne objects were crossing in front of the Sun at the time:

Holy Haleakale! Amazing. Even better, the transit lasted less than a second, so Thierry had to be right on the money to get that picture. The ‘scope he used, a 150 mm Takahashi, is one I drooled over at a star party some years ago… but at $8600 it’s a tad out of my range.

Go to Thierry’s website to see a whole slew (slew! Haha!) of other incredible shots. The man is an artist.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, NASA, Science, Time Sink

Comments (30)

  1. Mark Martin

    Good-gawd, those are crisp images on that site.

  2. LucasVB

    That’s a fantastic shot!

    I’m looking at the rest of his pictures and wow, they are pure genius! Very sharp and amazing shots! 😮

  3. Tim G

    Perhaps one day, amateurs could afford adaptive optics. Then, we could see really detailed images of orbiting objects.

  4. SMEaton

    Detailed, Tim G!? My goodness! Getting such an image, against the sun, with a filter, with the shuttle and ISS in the foreground, is just too rare and way too freaking cool.

  5. Roy Batty

    Wonderful! It’s also on APOD today & now my wallpaper :-)

  6. Michelle Rochon

    Oh yea, I remember that picture. I saw it a few days ago on spaceweather. It was pretty neat. :)

  7. Navneeth

    That (actually, the APOD colour version) was the first thing I saw in the morning (which is nearly half-a-day ahead of most of you ;)). I’ve seen many such pics before, but the crisp silhouette in this photo is what makes it so amazing.

    Btw, if any of you want to be alerted by email when the ISS will be transiting the face of the sun or the moon, check out It’s a very useful astro-resouce.

  8. PsyberDave

    I’d say “AMAZING!”, but James Randi gets all huffy about the unauthorized use of the term :-p

    But it is! I am amazed!

  9. Outstanding image! The timing of the transit, and managing to get ISS AND Atlantis – Fantastic!
    Thanks, Phil, for keeping us up-to-date with the latest astronomical and science news.
    And I just love that you use “fracking” routinely.

  10. Brant D.

    Hey, is that a UFO on the upper-right portion of the disk? Better grab the pic before it is censored.

  11. ioresult

    Tim G: have you seen the exposure time? 1/8000 of a second!

    Aren’t adaptive optics used to stabilize images for long exposures? So I’d guess adaptive optics in this case should be useless.

  12. Navneeth

    Brant D.,
    That’s not a UFO, it’s sunspot 910 (I think it’s 11910, to be precise) close to the solar limb. It’s more or less facing the Earth right now…

  13. optics

    That last picture looks like an optical illusion.

  14. Nigel Depledge

    That is just so cool!

    Thierry Legault is indeed an extraordinary photographer. He’s obviously worked very hard to become so good, so a definite tip of the hat to him.

  15. mandarine Says: “Better still: a satellite seen from another satellite.”

    That’s a great shot, but I’m not sure what they mean by “For the first time ever in the history of space observation.” Reconnaissance satellites used to shoot each other all the time (photographically) for practice. They called it “Sat-squared” (satellite-satellite) imagery . The first instance I’m aware of was Skylab. After it was damaged at launch, the NASA program managers needed to know if it was repairable or just a write-off.

    They called the Air Force and asked if they could do anything. The AF said they just happened to have a close-look bird in orbit (one of the ones that officially didn’t exist), and after some considerable calculation decided they had the capability to do it. The problem isn’t magnification, it’s aiming and timing. The AF bird was in a (ahem!) polar orbit while Skylab was inclined about 30°. Their relative speeds were enormous and the PR bird pulled a ton of film to make sure they got it. Then they blew off the entire rest of the roll (that’s 1/2 of the whole mission!) to bring the film bucket back early.

    Don’t ask me how I know this :-)

    – Jack

    PS – The photo wound up on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. No one is sure who leaked the photo to him, but some heads rolled in the program after that.

  16. Brant D.

    “That’s not a UFO, it’s sunspot 910 (I think it’s 11910, to be precise) close to the solar limb.”

    That’s what they want you to think.

  17. Amazing picture and story – very, very cool … and I even laughed at the “slew” joke! 😉

  18. Jack H: maybe they meant ‘for the first time in official history of space observation’. Or maybe they meant ‘for the first time in the history of european space observation’. Or maybe they were so glad they got that shot that they forgot to do their homework beforehand.
    Thanks for the info.

  19. Allen Thomson


    > Tim G: have you seen the exposure time? 1/8000 of a second!

    > Aren’t adaptive optics used to stabilize images for long exposures? So I’d guess adaptive optics in this case should be useless.

    Well, “not absolutely needed” is probably more like it than “useless.” What we’re dealing with here goes under the name of “short-exposure” imaging. The atmospheric turbulence that causes blurring (aka “seeing”) is a statistical beast, and every once in a while, for a few milliseconds, the atmosphere in front of a telescope flattens out enough to allow images near the diffraction limit to be taken. So the basic trick (there are elaborations) is to take a lot of short-exposure images and choose the occasional sharp one. Depending on local turbulence conditions and the brightness of the target, the technique has been shown to work with telescopes having apertures up to a meter or a bit more.

    Ron Dantowitz pioneered the technique for satellite imaging in the unclassified world. See, e.g., about halfway down the page. Solar silhouettes are a variant that allow for *really* short exposures because the sun is, as we know, bright.

    (Fifteen years or so ago, I in a briefing where an official from a certain three-letter organization that’s now housed in Chantilly, Va. became very unhappy when one of my colleagues discussed the possible applications of short-exposure solar and lunar silhouette imaging of satellites.)

  20. Elizabeth

    Awesome! like you said it was a one (in the universe) time shot.
    You have a remarkable sence of timing, a fantastic amalgum of photography equipment and a very decerning eye. Was the camera “analog” or “digital” (old verses new school). Your “the Bad Astronomer” moniker fits that was a totally BAD**** picture. Good luck in any future endevors.


    Beuuuuuuuuuuuuuuutifull shot

  22. marko

    APOD has another image: — viewing the shot with the Shuttle from September 2006 and the new picture with just the ISS side by side shows the progress in adding solar panels and modules. Just what are they doing with all that solar power and additional space? Far too little research is going on.

  23. david

    jeez his nebula shots are amazing also

  24. As a Geologist I can certainly appreciate this fabulous photo. Astounding and incredible to say the least. The man is a genious with a lens. I was floored by the image of the eclipse with the International Space Station between. Incredibe timing! And to think this all happened 4 years ago, and I never knew.


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