ISS, Shuttle transit the Sun!

By Phil Plait | May 18, 2010 4:09 pm

Thierry Legault is a gift to astronomy bloggers. He just sent me this:





The big yellow thing is the Sun. But look at the upper right section. See those two dark blips? The one on the left is the Shuttle Orbiter Atlantis and on the right is the International Space Station! Incredibly, Thierry caught them as they passed directly in front of the Sun! To give you an idea of how talented Thierry is, the entire transit lasted just over half a second.

Click to embiggen. I mean it, click it. The full-scale image is drop-dead incredible. Mind you, Atlantis had just started its pitch maneuver, designed to show its belly to the crew on the ISS so they can inspect it for heat tile damage. That means this image was taken shortly before the Orbiter docked with the station, on May 16th. Thierry was in Madrid specifically to get this shot.

Un frakkin’ believable.

Get a good look. This is the last mission of Atlantis (unless it’s needed as a rescue mission later this year), so we won’t get too many more views like this.

Related posts:

Extremely cool 3D Space Station video taken from the ground

Check. This. Out. Amazing photo of the Sun

Image used with permission by Thierry Legault.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (78)

  1. CryoTank

    What a sight!!!

  2. Kevin

    Incredible. Stunning. Plus many other adjectives that can’t come to mind as I’m completely blown away as usual. I figured it was one of Thierry’s images even before I read the caption.

  3. MadScientist

    I’m sure Thierry can write a book on how to do this. :) I’d still bet a lot of people would get the book just to see his photos.

    Talk about sunspotideolia – anyone else think those spots look like the space shuttle and the ISS? 😛

    Note the limb darkening – now why can’t I see such a thing when I stare at the sun?

  4. Russell

    How tiny we are !

    Chilling to think there are people in those little do-dads !

    The embiggened view shows only a hint of blur. The seeing must have been very good indeed, and the telescope must have been very stable, and the astronomer very talented !!

  5. Len Bonacci

    Odd that there are no sunspots — we’re supposed to be near a solar max, aren’t we?

  6. Thierry was in Madrid specifically to get this shot.

    I think there’s got to be an OMFSM aspect to that statement as well.

    So, how much time and effort went into setting up this shot from a 1/2-second window?

  7. Plasticrectangle

    Actually the Sun is just now starting to leave an unusually long solar minimum; it’s been very quiet for many years.

  8. Really cool, or should I say hot picture Dr Phil!

  9. Awesome picture! I wish I had the money and time to be able to capture cool space pics like this!

  10. Tricia G

    I am in AWE. That is a fantastic picture. Totally geeking out right now.

  11. I heard that if you stare at this photo long enough you see an image of Jesus. I’m afraid to try…

  12. Bill

    Dr. Plait:

    Enclosed please find two invoices for reimbursement:

    One for $248.23 to cover the cost of examination and stitches in my chin,
    and one for $824.91 that was spent to repair the damage to my floor that was struck by the aforementioned chin.

    In the future, please consider that there are very real and potentially expensive consequences to posting such amazing images in your blog.


  13. Plutonian

    This looks even better than the similar one Thierry Legault took on May 15th last year. (The Check.This. Out. one linked by the BA at the end. Which seems not to be tagged under “Sun” here btw.)

    Hmm.. May 15th last year, May 18th this year this looks like a great yearly tradition .. 😉

    Except as you noted :

    This is the last mission of Atlantis (unless it’s needed as a rescue mission later this year), so we won’t get too many more views like this.

    Is that totally certain now?

    I had hoped that they were going to do one last mission with Atlantis later – converting the “stand-by for possible rescue” into an actual final flight.

    Such a shame. They should keep flying the Shuttles longer, I wish they would. :-(

    Also I gather there are only 6 crew aboard atAtlantis this time – but I thought the Shuttles usually fly with seven – why is that?

    PS. TV comic / current affairs host David Letterman did a good speil on his Late Show about this current (final?) flight of the Atlantis last night. (Aussie schedule.) Apparently David Letterman himself was there watching the launch of STS-132.

  14. Wayne Robinson

    I take it all back. I imported it to iPhoto and then enlarged it to its maximum. It’s absolutely amazing to be able to see the texture of the surface of the Sun in such detail. Does the absence of sunspots mean that we are in big trouble with global climate change when they return? But what are those two big black blobs in the right upper corner?

  15. Plutonian

    @ ^ Wayne Robinson – Take all *what* back? This looks like your first comment about this photo or on this thread. (Puzzled.)

  16. Thad Hatchett

    Phil, if that doesn’t make your list of top ten astronomy photos of 2010 I’ll be even more amazed.

  17. Daniel J. Andrews

    Bet there’s a good story behind the trip and the planning to get that photograph especially if he went by air–i.e. Iceland’s volcano keeps shutting down airports. Thierry needs to write a book for sure–part “how to”, part adventure story, part jaw-dropping good photography.

  18. Levi in NY

    Still no sunspots, eh? Huh.

    Anyhow, thanks for the super awesome picture! I didn’t think it was even possible to catch something like that in the glare of the Sun’s light.

  19. Charles Evo

    Look closely. That’s the starship Enterprise, as in Kirk and Spock.

    The “neck” of the ship is cloaked at the moment, but that’s probably because the photo was taken while the ship was cloaking or de-cloaking, or whatever they call it.

  20. Peter B

    Spectacular photo. In the enlarged version, I was startled to be able to see that the Sun’s edge appears to be textured. Is that real, or just an optical illusion?

  21. frank morgan

    Awesome shot!should get the Oscar for astro-photography if there is one…a prolonged solar minimum,mmmm ,another Carrington Event coming up maybe ? Thankyou Bad Astronomy for featuring this photo.

  22. jcm

    Amazing! Although I see no sunspots.

  23. Jesper

    It’s not the first time we see a photo like this, but it’s still very COOL!

  24. ausduck

    This sort of awesome reminds me why I love science :)

  25. GregInTokyoNow

    The other night I was walking home on the outskirts of Tokyo and happened to look up in time to see two bright points of light about 5 degrees apart scooting across the heavens. It didn’t take long to realize what they were but having only seen one object at a time before, to see Atlantis actually chasing after the ISS was absolutely amazing. They seemed to get closer as I watched but maybe that was an illusion.

    I was dying to tell everyone to look up but there was no-one around. Had I been at the crowded train station I left some 10 minutes before I would have grabbed the microphone from one of the amateur musicians and yelled to the commuting masses to pull their eyes from the ground and catch something they have never seen before and may never see again in their lives.

    It’s sad to think that I probably won’t either.

  26. Call me overly cautious, but I’m viewing the image through a little hole in a cardboard box.

  27. Michael Kingsford Gray

    Is this astounding piccy also available in a lossless format?

  28. Gus Snarp

    Looks fake, I’m calling Photoshop. But seriously, that’s pretty cool.

  29. Ferin

    Nice picture. That guy’s got some amazing talent to catch it so well. Saw the ISS transit overhead on Saturday night (maybe Friday? Whenever Atlantis launched) Was surpsired how easy it is to tell it’s a not a star nowadays, even with naked eye it looks…. not starish, and with some cheapy binoculars it definitely looks like it’s got little extra bits on it.

    Really hope they don’t decommission it anytime soon, I’d love to see us keep building her up and make her a real gateway to deep space.

  30. Dunc

    Odd that there are no sunspots — we’re supposed to be near a solar max, aren’t we?

    No, we’re just coming out of solar min. Unusually slowly right enough, but we’re nowhere near solar max.

  31. Tina

    Thanks for the amazing pic!!!!

  32. Tina

    Thanks for the amazing picture!!!!

  33. Glen

    Absolutely Amazing and Totally Cool!

  34. Chip

    That’s the next best photo to one showing sunspots. (Hey, I’m a ham, and we hams LOVE sunspots.)

  35. Martin Hajovsky

    Now THAT ought to charge up those solar batteries!!!

  36. Chris A.

    For those who are wondering “where are the sunspots?” and “where are we in the solar cycle?”, see:

  37. Bon voyage. Hosta la vista Atlantis

    It’s been a good run!

    I worked for Webber Aircraft that manufactured the ejection seats for the Gemini project.

  38. Chanelle

    Seriously, it looks fake because the sun is soooo uniform. Not only no sunspots, but very little color variation even. Unless you zoom way in, this looks like someone drew a circle, picked a yellow color and hit “fill”. Too perfect.

    However, when I do zoom in and see the detail, it leads me to conclude it is a real, if very unusual, photo. Very cool.

  39. kevbo

    I’m guessing, but there was probably some serious filtering going on to make the shuttle and ISS visible; that probably led to the lack of visible solar activity…

  40. Tyson

    Alert Starfleet ! Klingon battlecruiser !! In the small image anyway =)

  41. Brian

    I agree. That is totally ridiculous!

  42. anon

    I’m sure you’re a great guy, Phil, but you write like a 12 year old girl.

  43. mpb

    At some point I stopped explaining my worldview to the religious in part due to the number of responses that seemed to suggest pity that an atheist/scientist/skeptic lacked the ability to see the universe with awe and wonder (exactly the opposite, I would contend – I look with awe and wonder at that which hubris tells them they understand). This picture makes me feel like I’m standing in Adams’ Total Perspective Vortex.

    As for the sunspots and overly-flattened sun, I’m guessing this is just depth-of-focus? It reminds me of looking at layers of cells on a slide. Imagine focusing on something very small and near in front of something very visually complex and far. To make the foreground sharp, the background looks vague and homogeneous.

  44. thats beautiful. must be some sort of irony having awesome astronomy on the bad astronomy website though! although i aint complaining

  45. Steven F. Scharff

    I am at a loss for words. Awe-inspiring, incredible, mind-blowing… They can’t do justice. Just sit back and bask in the wonder of it all.

  46. jackrabbitslim

    badass. 100% badass….

  47. J.J.E.

    So, Phil, you could totally do a great geeky post on this Thierry Legault guy’s methods. I put pen to paper a bit (making a few assumptions of course) and it looks like he’s working at the edge of diffraction limited resolution here. If you assume that he’s got a 30 cm telescope (12″), is measuring light near the ultraviolet (lambda = 400 nm) and that the space station is 300 km overhead, you get a distance of about 0.5 m, assuming no loss of resolution due to optics or atmospheric turbulence, which is bound to inflate that number a little bit at least.

    Looking at a model of the international space station, those solar panels are about 2.6 meters separated from one another. In the image, the panels are clearly resolved. In other words, he’s working at the very limits of resolution. And his 3D pictures appear to have even more resolution than these pics.

    This is a situation where the cool factor is amplified by geekery.

  48. fred edison

    Gotta love those Keplerian elements for tracking orbital bodies like the ISS & Atlantis. Wicked awesome snap.

  49. HK

    Was the photo taken with an iPhone?

  50. David Rousso

    Thank you for making me feel completely without talent. This is an extraordinary astrophoto. Brilliantly done. Where can I find out more on your technique to capture this image. Thank you-just beautiful!

  51. David Preston

    There was a bit of bad astronomy linked to this story. The Daily Mirror, in its coverage of this image, helpfully pointed out that the picture was taken in daylight. (Much easier than photographing the sun at night, I think you’ll find.)

  52. Hasim Tarioglu

    Great picture,great timing.Almost missed the chance!!!!!

  53. Messier Tidy Upper

    Thierry Legault’s Sun with ISS & Atlantis orbiter image appeared full colour with a reasonable write-up in my state (South Australia) newspaper – The Advertiser – page 17, Sat. May 22nd 2010. :-)

  54. Sha

    Am I the only one who saw the image scrolling down and thought “TIE Fighter?!” XD

    That’s a pretty awesome photo though

  55. Robin

    Trying to get a little bit of a sense of scale here.

    The Internets tell me that the ISS is about 250,000m above the earth’s surface [1], give or take. The sun is about 150,000,000,000m away (1 AU, approx.).

    The profile of the ISS covers about 10,000m^2 (length * width, assuming that it is parallel to the earth’s surface) [2], and the sun has a diameter of about 1,400,000,000m [3]. So the circle of the sun we’re seeing here has an area of about 15,000,000,000,000,000 (15 quadrillion) m^2.


    (I rounded, kept the units the same and didn’t use scientific notation so that the sheer number of zeros could sink in.)


  56. Reed

    When a plane passes over head the shadow it casts is virtually full sized. This is due to the fact that the sun is close to infinity and a point source. So the question is: does the ISS cast a shadow? Can the ISS looking down with a telescope see its shadow? My guess would be no. because due to its orbital height it does not obscure enough of the sun to define a shadow.

    The ISS would be detectable from earth by measuring a dip in the sun’s output during transit (like the extra planet searches) but no blink.

    On further thought its a dumb question.

  57. Embiggen?

    Embiggen is not a real word.

  58. dcsohl

    It’s a perfectly cromulent word!

  59. Kevin


  60. I am fortunate that I can see all kinds of night sky traffic, living just outside the Mojave Desert. I just love it, I can’t keep my eyes off the night sky. Oh ya, thanks for the PIC!


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