And I saw a star rising in… the WEST?

By Phil Plait | September 12, 2010 7:30 am

Over the next few days, the International Space Station is making a series of excellent early evening passes over the western United States. I missed the one Friday night due to clouds, but Saturday (9/11) was perfectly clear.

With my off-the-shelf digital camera set to ISO 400, f/3.5, and using a 15 second exposure, I got a couple of very cool shots. Here it is rising in the northwest over my back yard:

[Click to embiggen. You really should go see the biggest versions of these shots to appreciate them.]

The bright star in the center is the orange giant Arcturus, a star much like the Sun but already in its death throes. The Sun will look like Arcturus in about 6 billion more years… and bear in mind that while it was only about half as bright as the space station when I took that shot, Arcturus was about a trillion times farther away.

Boy howdy.

Here is another one I took a few seconds later, when the ISS was passing just to the south and east of the constellation of Corona Borealis:

Corona Borealis is the U-shaped curved series of a half dozen stars just to the right of the right-hand end of the ISS streak. Note that the streak is longer than in the first photo; this was nearly overhead and the ISS was much closer to me than when it was on the horizon, so in those same 15 seconds it moved a lot further across the sky.

At this point, it was brighter than Jupiter in the sky. But then something amazing happened: it blinked out! I was expecting that: when it gets to a certain part of the sky, it enters Earth’s shadow. We see it fade out, but at that moment, from the astronauts point of view on board, they see the Sun setting behind the limb of the Earth. How cool is that? What surprised me was how quickly it faded; it couldn’t have taken more than a second or two. Usually it takes longer than that, fading slowly and turning reddish as it plunges into the Earth’s shadow.

I had a pair of binoculars with me, and while following the station was difficult — it was hauling! — I’m pretty sure I could see that it looked elongated to my eye. It’s as big as a football field now, 100 meters across, and in binocs it should look extended when overhead. I can’t be 100% sure I saw it that way, but I think so.

I stayed out a few more minutes just to use the binoculars and look at some old friends. I was able to spot the Dumbbell Nebula in Vulpecula, M13 in Hercules, and several star clusters and nebulae in Sagittarius. Just for grins, I took a 15 second shot of that last one:

You can see the teapot shape of Sagittarius right over my roof, and the fuzziness is the Milky Way galaxy itself: the combined light of billions of stars! I live in a mildly light-polluted area, so the sky is somewhat bright, but even so the Milky Way is easy to see in a short exposure. If you live with dark skies, then you can do a lot better than I can! Now is the time; get out there and observe!

And if you want to see the space station, and other satellites too, go to the Heavens Above website. Put in your latitude and longitude, and you’re off! It really is just that easy.

Related posts:

ISS and Shuttle images!
The Shuttle, the Station, and Orion
Space Station crosses the dark side of the Moon!
ISS, Shuttle transit the Sun!
Two solar ISS transits!
Amazing shot of ISS and Jupiter during daytime!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures
MORE ABOUT: Arcturus, ISS, Sagittarius

Comments (35)

Links to this Post

  1. Stuck in the Lagoon’s quagmire | Bad Astronomy | January 24, 2011
  1. Michel

    Second pic is the same as the third when I click on it.
    For the rest: nice pics. Can´t wait for some clear nights.
    Maybe next friday we get lucky when we do a little starparty.

  2. Gary Ansorge

    100 meters across IS a mighty big space station. I hope the vasimir thruster is able to cost effectively boost its orbit. It seems to me the longer we can keep the ISS in orbit, the more useful stuff we may learn.

    I’d like to see someone like Bigalow add on a bunch of commercial pods to the station and make some serious money. THAT will keep the ISS in orbit for a very long time.

    Maybe someday, we can even add tethered rotating structures, to provide G forces. We’ll have to have some such semi-permanent occupation before we can build a Mars exploration vehicle in orbit.

    Gary 7

  3. KurtMac

    Last night I was out in the sticks at my astronomy club’s dark-site with a handful of other members, and we all watched this very pass go directly overhead. As the ISS passed our zenith, I stopped and realized “Hey! I’ve got a telescope here! Telescopes magnify things!” So I hastily swung my 8″ dob around and aimed at a point where the ISS was going to be, looked through the eyepiece and zooom! The ISS went zipping through the field. I quickly caught up, and tracked it by hand. The eyepiece I had made about 70x power, and clearly visible were the 8 solar panel trusses and the structure of modules in between. It was amazing watching it blaze through the star field behind it. All these years watching ISS flyovers, I never successfully viewed it through my telescope. I tracked all the way until it turned that pretty yellow, then deep orange and red color as it entered earth’s shadow.

    Also notable that night, aside from all the astronomical objects we observed, about 1:28am CT, I saw the brightest bolide meteor I’ve ever seen. I was the last one at the site and just finished packing up, when suddenly two intensely bright lighting flashes illuminated the sky and ground around me, casting shadows. It scared the bejeebus out of me, and if I hadn’t just relieved myself in the bushes I would’ve needed a change of pants! I didn’t see the meteor itself, but when I looked up I saw an intense blue vapor trail stretch directly overhead from Triangulum to Cygnus, as if someone had unzipped the sky. The trail was plainly visible for 3-4 minutes, and faded away over 5 minutes time.

    So far, I haven’t seen any other witnesses post anything on the Internets, being in such a remote area I’m not surprised. Its funny how these things tend to only happen when you’re alone! “You gotta believe me!” I’m halfway considering calling the nearby gas stations to see if their external security cameras caught anything. I’m sure these things are common, on a global scale, but this was a first for me!

  4. Ray

    Phil, add your photos to the “astrometry” group on Flickr and their automated image analyser will figure what part of the sky they are and annotate them for you…

  5. Michel

    For those who want to know more about tracking the ISS with their scope etc.
    Go here:
    Tons of info and knowhow.
    Have fun!

  6. D’oh! Fixed the link, sorry.

    Ray, the astrometry solver is pretty cool. It’s not perfect; the squares don’t go over the stars well and it misses some bright ones, but still that’s amazing!

  7. Chip

    Last nights ISS pass here in northern New England was almost directly overhead. I sat on my roof and could see it fade out in the east at just a few degrees above the horizon. Have some ISS photos up on my Facebook wall, but have yet to get a decent view through my 8″ scope. Tracking, even at low power and wide field is a challenge.

  8. I managed to get a couple of shots off on Friday of the crescent moon, Venus and Mars. I may have captured a UFO too. 😉

  9. Michel

    For those who want to know more about tracking the ISS with their scope etc.
    Go here:
    http: slash slah
    Tons of info and knowhow.
    Have fun!

  10. Phil, with your WF shots, you can extend your exposure time a little longer, as much as 30 secs, before the stars start to trail. (They may have a slight elongation when zoomed in, but for the purpose of a wide-field, you’ll have a nice shot.) Also, try setting your ISO to 800, or even 1600. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the results.

    Some Examples w/ those settings:
    ISS thru the Big Dipper:
    Pleiades/Hyades field:
    Milky Way:
    Mars and Orion:
    Iridium flare near Orion on a very hazy night:

    Not magazine worthy perhaps, but as you suggested, fun things we can do with off the shelf cameras from our own backyards 😉

  11. Pete

    Nice photo!

    If you’d waited another ~30 mins, you’d have seen Progress M-07M/39P fly over as well!

  12. Phil, just curious as to the type of camera you used. Was it a “point and shoot” digital, or a DSLR? I have a Canon Rebel DSLR and have tried to do some sky shots, but haven’t had much success.

  13. Grand Lunar

    Been too cloudy here for me to see the ISS. Darn it!

    But I do recall the times I could; even with the naked eye, it’s still awesome. Never saw it cross into Earth’s shadow, though.

  14. When the ISS disappears, it doesn’t quite blink out. Rather, it fades as the astronauts go through sunset. I blogged about a pass of the ISS and shuttle last November and got a nice pic of the ISS fading out. You can clearly see the color change to a reddish tint as the ISS passes into Earth’s shadow.

  15. NAW

    The best I got to see was both the ISS and shuttle (forget which one, years ago) one night. They had just separated and were just a couple of degree apart from each other. Sadly, I had no camera or the skill at the time to take a photo.

  16. Sometime in March I tried a widefield shot to capture the ISS and it came out pretty nice.

    I’m sure you can identify the constellation it is moving through :). The ISS also crossed over into the Earth’s shadow like Phil saw.

    MichaelL – I did mine with a Canon 300D + kit lens at 18mm. 45s at ISO 400 (Had to turn the ISO down because I live in a horribly light polluted area).

  17. Navneeth

    I didn’t let the facts that you are a “close, personal friend of Adam Savage [TM]” or you that have your own show on Discovery Channel bother me too much, Phil. But with that last shot, I’m officially envious of you.

  18. Jackie

    I’ve been using Heavens Above for the past couple of years. Great resource site, too. Caught the ISS last night. The pass was particularly pretty, with the ISS being -3.5 magnitude.

  19. This is another site which just via zip code allows you to quickly check for the ISS and other satellite flyovers:

  20. Jack Mitcham

    You get more stars in a 15 second camera exposure than I can see with my naked, dark-adjusted eye in my backyard just outside of Baltimore.

    I’m jealous.

  21. Kaveh

    Meanwhile here in San Jose, CA….
    Just watched the ISS pass by, thanks for putting the heads up out on this, Phil! This was the first time i saw the ISS, me and my girlfriend enjoyed it!

  22. CAP

    The most amazing shuttle pass I have seen so far was the STS-71 mission, the first joint mission with Russia…Atlantis visited MIR…it was July 4th, the shuttle separated from MIR, and flew directly overhead here in Hawaii while we were watching the fireworks at the beach…they were close together, both going thru the fireworks display towards the moon…remarkable, as I remember the “cold war” times….

  23. Messier Tidy Upper

    Awesome photos & great to read about your personal observing. :-)

    Nice photo of the “teapot” astetrism even if it is upside down owing to your being the other hemisphere!

    Did you know the star on the tip of the teapot’s spout Al Nasl Gamma-2 Sagittarii or Al Nasl which sounds wonderfully like “the nozzle” has a Cepeheid variable partner Gamma-1 or W Sagittarii that varies between magnitudes 4.3 and 5.1 over a 7.59 day period?

    Or that of the 8 main stars making up the “teapot” half of them
    (Al Nasl – Gamma-2 Sagittarii, Kaus Borealis – Lambda Sgr, Hecatebolus or Tau Sgr & Kaus Media or Kaus Meridionalis – Delta Sgr)
    are also – like Arcturus – orange giant stars.

    Of the other four, 3 of of spectral type B with Nunki (Sigma Sgr) being a B2.5 blue dwarf star, Nanto (Phi Sgr) being a B8 blue sub-giant and Kaus Australis (Epsilon – and yet being the brightest star in the constellation despite that Greek letter.) being a B9.5 blue giant. The other teapot star Ascella (Zeta Sgr) is a binary comprising an A2 white giant and an A4 paper Sirian sub-giant.

    If folks wish to know which stars is which, in order running from the tip of the spout towards the handle and back again (anti-clockwise)
    they are :

    Al Nasl,
    Kaus Media aka Kaus Meridionalis,
    Kaus Borealis (tip of the lid with M28 just above it on the spout side & M24 above on the handle side)
    Nanto or usually just Phi,
    Nunki (top of the handle)
    Hecatebolus or usually just Tau,
    Ascella (Marking the handle-base join with M54, M70 & M69 running along the base of the teapot)
    & finally
    Kaus Australis marking the base of the spout.

    NB. I only found out the proper names for Phi (Nanto) and Tau (Hecatebolus) the other day via Wikipedia.

    Hope folks find that interesting / useful / enjoyable. :-)

  24. Messier Tidy Upper

    If folks are wondering sources / relevant links here :

    for W Sgr

    For the handy labelled Sagittarius map via Kaler’s Stars website &

    For the wikipedia page.

  25. How can the space station have been brighter than Jupiter, if it was only twice as bright as Arcturus?

  26. Bramblyspam

    Apropos the title: My wife and I actually saw the sun rising in the west in the evening, a few weeks ago. We were taking off from an airport at just the right time; the sun had already set when we were taking off from ground level, but it rose back above the horizon as the plane gained altitude. ‘Twas kinda neat.

  27. Kevin

    I was out last night to try a triple shot – a bright ISS pass, a-7 Iridium flare, and a flyover of the X37B. Missed ISS because it was too bright out (only 10 minutes after sunset), got the flare, but the weird part was the X37B flyover.

    We saw the object flying over, and I fired off the shutter on my camera. The craft went across the sky, going just under Altair, and disappeared to the east. I then closed the shutter on my camera, and looked at the image on the LCD.

    The Milky Way was visible, all the stars were beautiful, but no X37B flyover! Obviously the spaceplane has a stealth mode that allows you to see it visually, but not by cameras… there’s your conspiracy theory!!! 😀

  28. Chris

    On a kind of related note, Uranus is really close to Jupiter (as view from Earth of course) right now making it extremely easy to find. Well worth it.

  29. GA

    So this one night my kids and I were sitting in our car in the parking lot of Macy’s, waiting for my wife to come back. I was fooling around with my iPhone, and typed “ISS” in the Wolfram Alpha search engine, just for the heck of it.

    The projection on the map showed that it was probably going to fly over us soon. Quickly jumped over the HSF Orbital Tracking page on NASA and confirmed that there was going to be a pass directly overhead in about a minute.

    So we go out into the parking lot and scan our eyes towards where it is supposed to appear. We must have missed the first few seconds of it, but suddenly there it was, passing right overhead, brighter than anything else in the evening sky. We tracked it all the way across the sky, until it faded from our view.

    The other people in the parking lot were probably wondering why there was a grown man and two kids jumping up and down in the parking lot and pointing up at the sky. All I could do was be amazed by the state of technology today. Sitting in a mall parking lot, we could find out when a satellite (which itself is another amazing piece of technology) was going to pass directly overhead.

  30. kroosing to '42' via '37'

    @ #14 hale-bopp:

    Thank you, man! I wanted to ask about it here today, because when I did on a local astronomy forum some time ago, I only got rolling eyes in reply. I thought it was too short to visualize on photo.
    I have seen the ISS turn red before disappearing on two occasions, though a lot shorter than in your description, or can be made out from the photo. That looks like at least a couple of seconds right?
    Man, am I happy, you really made my day!

  31. Menyambal

    Phil, thank you very much.

    I followed the Heavens Above link, and got the ISS data for 37, -93 (I have memorized my approximate lat/long now). I hadn’t seen it for a few years, so I thought I’d try.

    My wife, daughter and I had been having a bad evening, family-wise, and things were rather tense by 8:40. I asked my wife if she wanted to see the ISS go over, and she rather reluctantly followed me out into the street.

    The night was clear, but there’s an inconvenient streetlight, and trees, and I really hadn’t got the time and direction data menorized, and the daughter was on the computer, so I thought the whole thing was going to be a loss (I’d stood in the same place once, waiting for the re-entering Space Shuttle, and had missed it).

    Then I saw a steady spot of light moving up exactly between two trees. I decided to run in and drag out the daughter, and we got back in plenty of time to see it still rising.

    It went almost straight overhead, very bright and steady, while we talked about what we we seeing. (The kid is a real smart-ass, so it isn’t often I can tell her about anything.) I said 500 miles up and a 90-minute orbit, which both can’t be right, but it sounded impressive.

    Then, just past overhead, it did exactly what I said it would, and dimmed out. But it did a spectacular color shift into red as it went, and went out like a dying spark. That was something I had never seen before.

    So we went back in and went back to our different activities, but we’d had a good time and a family moment or two, and all had seen something new, thanks to me and thanks to you.

    Thanks, Phil.

  32. SchreiberBike

    Inspired by this post, I just watched the ISS go overhead. I got slightly different information from heavens-above and from NASA Skywatch, but it came up in the neighborhood of both of them and it was quite impressive.

    Had I not known what it was, I would have assumed it was a high flying plane and when it didn’t wink out as it moved to the east, I would have figured out that it must be a satellite.

    A fun experience. Thanks for the inspiration.

  33. fred edison

    I was at a Rush concert a couple of weeks ago (yes, they rocked). I was scanning the sky, which is a habit of mine, and there it was piercing the night with its brilliance. I enjoyed two great shows for the price of one.

    I caught up with the ISS again last Caturday evening. It appeared to be a dull red as it rose, passed nearly overhead a dazzling white, and again turned a dull red before it disappeared near the tree-line. I looked over to the SW and saw the low hanging crescent Moon appearing especially large and gorgeous, reinvigorating my already abundant appreciation for astronomy and the celestial mechanics that control it all.

  34. André

    Dear Phil and followers,

    living in the centre of Berlin, I find it fascinating to see how bright the Space Station-passes usually are even though there is strong light pollution above the city. It always makes me think about how the Astro-/Cosmonauts see the big citys after sunset from up there.

    The third picture (sagittarius) struck me most. It is a long time since I actually saw the milky way THAT way! I mean, clearly shimmering through the darkness like a nebula.
    I believe it was at an english rural camping-site when I was sixteen.

    Is there a better chance to have that impression at certain longitudes and latitudes around the earth? Or is it just light-pollution and weather-conditions? Why, for example, is an image of a clear desert-sky associated best with a good SEE?

    Regardless of that, it is surprising to me how much you actually CAN see with only a pair of binoculars – even if you are in the midst of a big city.

    André from Berlin


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