Amazing Shuttle picture!

By Phil Plait | April 27, 2010 10:37 am

[Update: Frequent BABlog contributer Thierry Legault also captured an incredible image of Discovery as well!]

"Amateur" astronomer Ralf Vandebergh took this incredible shot of the Space Shuttle Orbiter Discovery as it was docked to the space station. Mind you, this picture was taken from the ground!


Wow! Discovery was 369 km (220 miles) away from Ralf when he snapped this shot using his 25 cm (10″) telescope. The atmosphere above his observing site was calm and steady, aiding him in getting such an astounding picture. Incredibly, he was tracking the Orbiter and station manually, moving his telescope by hand!

He has other pictures of this mission as well, including several of the space station. Ralf’s images have graced this blog before, including this one of the station, a picture of Discovery and ISS from an earlier mission, and one actually showing an astronaut doing a spacewalk!

It’s easy to forget that space isn’t all that far away, starting (officially) only 60 miles above our heads. The ISS orbits just 350 km (210 miles) above the Earth’s surface… which may not seem like much. But that’s vertical height; imagine climbing a staircase that high! It takes a lot of energy to get there, but, as it happens, only about the same amount of energy once there to go anywhere in the solar system.

As author Robert Heinlein said: once you’re in orbit, you’re halfway to everywhere. All it takes is energy, and the will to go there.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Pretty pictures, Space

Comments (22)

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  1. NthDegree256

    Space! It’s closer (to me, at least) than Australia!

  2. DebG

    That is just a stunning shot. I’m afraid to show it to my husband…he’ll start muttering about “need longer lens…”

  3. Daniel J. Andrews

    Wow. Nice work! “Amateur” indeed. We need a new name for this.

    I was around doing astrophotography before the CCD era and this sort of shot was something we probably didn’t even dream about, even with modified tracking gears on our scopes and cooled high-speed film in our cameras. It would be interesting to grab some of the old S&T mags to see what astrophotographers were saying was and wasn’t possible–then compare it to what Ralf and others are doing now.

  4. Jeff

    I did a calculation to make sure this wasn’t “faked”, and his theoretical maximum resolving power would be down to 1 cm size on the object. that is consistent with this picture so it is legit. Great job!!

    for mathy people out there, the resolving angle in radians is 1.22 (wavelength)/diameter and then take this angle and multiply by the distance to the shuttle, to get the minimum size features it would be possible to take a picture of , assuming no atmosphere or minimum atmospheric blurring.

  5. BJN

    Energy, some effective means of preventing bone and muscle loss, effective radiation shielding for voyages beyond the Earth’s magnetoshpere, a vehicular environment and crew mix that favors mental health, supplies for the journey and advanced recycling systems, resources for your stay at the destination, energy and resources for a return journey, the economic resources to achieve all of the preceding…and the will to go there.

  6. SeanC

    Another “Amateur” astronomer, Theirry Legault, has done some amazing shots like this. In fact he has an amazing shot of the same mission up:

  7. Alex

    This picture was already impressive – and then you mentioned that it was tracked manually and that made it even more impressive. There has never been a better time to be an amateur astronomer.

  8. Regner Trampedach

    conspiracy/ But there aren’t any stars in that image. And there is light on both wings so there must be two light sources /conspiracy.
    Cheers, Regner

  9. M Zelenz

    Thanks Ralf! and Thank you Obama for taking the space program to halfway to nowhere!!

  10. M Zelenz (#10): You misspelled “Bush Administration”. They are the ones who retired the Shuttle with no followup rocket built.

  11. ChH

    Awesome pic, and even more awesome manual tracking!
    Time to pick nits (I know Dr. Plait knows this, but I see a lot of people who don’t understand this concept): “But that’s vertical height; imagine climbing a staircase that high! It takes a lot of energy to get there”
    This gets into the difference between a sub-orbital hop and achieving orbit. A sub-orbital hop is where you get into space, but then fall right back to earth. Raising 1 kg up to 350 km requires approximately 3.4 MJ of energy (plus losses).
    Achieving orbit means getting up to orbital altitude PLUS achieving enough lateral velocity keep missing as you fall toward the earth. Boosting that kg to the 8 km/s lateral orbital velocity requires an additional 32 MJ (you get 0.1 MJ for free if you start near the equator).
    So … achieving low earth orbit requires at least 10 times the energy that getting up to that altitude requires.

  12. jcm

    Off topic: The results of the “Boobquare” are in.
    This seems to be a nice response to dubious claims made by clerics (NSFW):

  13. Jeff

    correction, resolution I meant 1 meter not centi- but still that is good enough to show above picture. He did a great astrophoto here.

  14. I’ve tried a few times to get the ISS and it is very difficult to accomplish….and I was only capturing at 750mm, I believe that Ralf and Thierry are capturing at around 4500mm and higher. Very difficult to get the target on the imaging chip! That isn’t taking into account that variable brightness of an ISS/Discovery pass from beginning to end.

    This was the best capture that I have attempted:

    But…I do find capturing the ISS like this is easier to keep on the imaging chip :)

    Oh, BTW…I cant remember where I heard this, but I believe that Ralf may stack a few frames to improve the resolution obtained. I believe you are able to surpass the theoretical resolution of a telescope by stacking and processing individual frames.

  15. Messier Tidy Upper

    Wow. That. Is. Stunning.

    Superluminous (ie beyond just brilliant!) work there by professional “amateur” astronomer Ralf Vandebergh – congrats on taking that photo & thanks for sharing it with us. :-)

    @ 10. M Zelenz :

    Thank you Obama for taking the space program to halfway to nowhere!!

    I agree. I feel Obama has betrayed his space and science fans by cancelling a human rated rocket & space exploration program that was finally getting ready to be launched. I think Constellation and Ares was too far advanced to be cancelling it at this stage.

    Plan for something after it and plan to replace the shuttles sure but I think Obama should have left Bush’es plan to return to Moon in place and committed to getting it done. Fact is that was Bush II’s best ever policy and was worth sticking too however little his opponents may wish to give that much-loathed figure any credit.

    I also hate the gap between shuttle’s retiring and their replacement flying – it should be scheduled so we had no more than a few months not an unknown number of years without human spaceflight capability.

    Sorry Dr Plait, you’re a great guy and I really love your blog but I don’t think there is any way of avoiding the conclusion that Obama has been a been let-down on space exploration and for NASA.

    Yes, Obama has now given NASA some more money and lots of promising but too vague and far-off talk of going to Mars – but I’ll believe Obama’s plan works onlywhen I see it happening.

  16. mike burkhart

    This is incredable.To get off topic a bit I recently watched the James Bond movie Moonraker, now the James Bond movies have often involved outer space but this first time Bond go into space (he also goes into space in the video game Nightfire)althro good there were problems:1 Its imposable to steal a space shuttle off a 747 there no fuel in the space shuttle during transport and its engines are coverd2 I don’t think Drax could have put that space station in orbit undected its never showed how how he did it 3 tere is no nerve gas that only affects humans (altho one could be devloped) since Phill has contacts at NASA I’d like him find out if NASA realy has a team of space marines armed with lasers and redy to be launced in space at any time.

  17. Ken (a different Ken)

    @Messier: Sure Bush’s plan was great.

    BTW, you’re doing a great job with your own house and family. Please begin construction of a completely new house. We will be tearing your current house down by the end of the year. No, you won’t be getting any additional salary, loans, or any other funding; you’ll just have to tighten your belt and make do with the money you have. Oh, you don’t have enough time to get a new house built before your current house gets torn down? Well, I’m sure your neighbors will give you a place to stay until it’s ready.

  18. This is astonishing, because I have tried to track the ISS with the shuttle docked with my 8″ Newtonian. Unfortunately, the telescope’s mount is alt-az, so it is appallingly difficult to keep it in the FOV, even at x40… would be much easier with an equatorial. However, I have managed to make out some of the ISS’s hardware such as solar panels, and of course the shuttle’s distinctive shape. Ralf Vandebergh defintely needs to be commended with a smaller target!

  19. Jon Hanford

    “”Amateur” astronomer Ralf Vandebergh took this incredible shot of the Space Shuttle Orbiter Discovery as it was docked to the space station”

    Uhhh…docked to the space station? I’ve seen several hi-res terrestrial shots of the Shuttle docked to the ISS, but this looks like a shot of the Shuttle ‘undocked’.

    According to info at Ralf’s website: “STS-131 Discovery in orbit, solo, good seeing, April 19, 2010”. Anyone else catch this? (Docked or undocked, this IS a great shot of Atlantis in orbit)

  20. Paul

    Does anyone know or care exactly what the space shuttle does up there for approximately 11 days each mission. It is not as if the ISS is a hotel or has spare beds and lots of room etc. 11 days is almost enough to go twice to the Moon and back. Oh.. of course, it’s a secret.


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