INSANELY awesome solar eclipse picture

By Phil Plait | January 4, 2011 10:49 am

Earlier today Europe, Asia, and Africa got to see a nice partial solar eclipse as the Moon passed in front of the Sun, blocking as much as 85% of the solar surface. The extraordinarily talented astrophotographer Thierry Legault traveled from his native France to the Sultanate of Oman to take pictures of the eclipse. Why there, of all places? Heh heh heh. It’ll be more clear when you see this ridiculously awesome picture he took:

Holy solar transits! Click to embiggen, which you really really should do.

Can you see why he traveled so far to get this shot? The silhouette of the Moon taking a dark bite out of the Sun is obvious enough, as are some interesting sunspots on the Sun’s face… but wait a sec… that one spot isn’t a spot at all, it’s the International Space Station! This was a double eclipse!

That’s why Thierry sojourned to Oman; due to the geometry of the ISS orbit, it was from there that he had the best chance of getting a picture of the station as it passed in front of the Sun during the relatively brief duration of the actual solar eclipse. But talk about brief; the ISS was in front of the Sun for less than second, so not only did he have one chance at getting this spectacular once-in-a-lifetime shot, but he had only a fraction of a second to snap it!

To give you an overall idea of what you’re seeing here: the Sun is 147 million kilometers away (less than usual because this eclipse happened, coincidentally, very close to perihelion, when Earth was closest to the Sun). The Moon is 390,000 kilometers away. The Sun is about 400 times bigger than the Moon, but also about 400 times farther away, making them look about the same size in the sky. If you’re still having a hard time picturing the scale, take a look at the dark sunspot in the lower right of the big picture: it’s about twice the size of the Earth!

The space station, on the other hand, is 100 meters across (the size of a football field) and orbits about 350 km (210 miles) above the Earth’s surface. So the Moon was very roughly 1000 times farther away than the ISS when this picture was taken, and the Sun 400,000 times more distant. Yet all three lined up just right to make this extraordinary photograph possible.

Thierry has taken some of the most amazing pictures of the station passing in front of the Sun and Moon I’ve ever seen — his shot of the ISS and the Moon shortly before last week’s lunar eclipse was beautiful — but this one really stands out. It took an extraordinary amount of planning, scheduling, travel, and plain old good thinking to make this picture happen. Congratulations to him for getting it, and I thank him for sending it to me!

[More eclipse pictures can be found linked from Stuart’s Astronomy Blog as well as on the BBC’s Sky at Night Flickr pool of pictures.]

Related posts:

When natural and artificial moons align
ISS, Shuttle transit the Sun
Check. This. Out. Amazing photo of the Sun!
Shuttle and ISS transit the Sun


Comments (191)

Links to this Post

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  1. That is an amazing picture. Now all they need is to find when you can also get the space shuttle (at the same time as these others) in the background and then I can die in peace. :)

  2. magista

    Phil, can we assume that that sunspot is an unresolved double? They do have to occur in pairs, don’t they?

  3. Chris

    Now that’s what science can do. Let’s see a psychic try to predict that!

  4. Thats amazing, can’t wait for discovery to get back to where it belongs(space) and see would look like and perhaps even an astronaut albeit probably just a pixel in size.

  5. @Chris: A psychic would probably be too busy trying to emotionally heal Thierry Legault so that this awesome picture could be taken.

  6. Craig

    I assume that this will be hard to bump out of the “best 10 of 2011”. (Or will it be the best 11…)

  7. I hope that Thierry Legault gets paid for all these photos, or has some other source of income. He sure seems to travel the world a lot to get these amazing images.

    (Okay, jealousy mode off.)

  8. Craig:

    I assume that this will be hard to bump out of the “best 10 of 2011″.

    And what would have happened had this eclipse been a few days earlier?

  9. Jim Porter

    Thierry could save a bundle on airfare if he’d just pick up a copy of Photoshop.

  10. Erik

    Amazing. =) Thanks for sharing Phil.

  11. Michael

    Luke: “He’s heading for that small moon…”
    Obi Wan: “That’s no moon, it’s a space station.”

    How come nobody told me we were building TIE Fighters?

  12. That’s an immense picture of the ISS – the other shot is just as ridiculous. VERY well done

  13. nuke3d

    That’s no moon. It’s a space station!
    Oh wait, it’s a moon.
    But that’s no sunspot. It’s a space station!

  14. Ray

    You’re not fooling me. That’s a TIE fighter. I expect you’ll deny that Mr. WorksfortheMan Astronomer, but it won’t fly.

  15. @Ray

    That’s exactly what I thought when I saw it.

    Cue “and that’s no moon” in 5… 4… 3…

  16. The Fermat Liar

    Meanwhile, back in the UK I could barely see my hand in front of my face due to the thick dark grim grey clouds obscuring the sunrise. Great.
    Because the eclipse had started just before the sun rose, and I live by the sea, and the sun would have risen out of the sea as the eclipse was happening, it would have been one of the most fabulous sunrises I could have seen in my life. I guess I should have made a sojourn to Oman.
    Anyway, thanks Thierry; you da Badass ‘tronomer, fer sure :)

  17. Awesome! I, too, thought it was a TIE fighter at first.

  18. Pardon me while I hinge my jaw back on. That’ll probably take a few minutes…

  19. kevbo

    I for one am just relieved that the lining-up of the earth, moon, ISS and sun didn’t result in the end of the world (as we know it).

  20. Dennis

    Wait a minute – how did Canada manage to imprint an image of their flag on the sun?!?
    That’s amazing!
    Does this mean Canada officially owns the sun now?

  21. Holy.

    Double eclipse…..WHAT DOES IT MEAN!?! wooooo….

  22. A fighter of that size couldn’t get that deep on it’s own, it must have been a part of a convoy or something . . . Look at him he’s heading for that small moon . . .

  23. Heiko´s Friend

    Maaan…Thierry is just sickening 😛 Truly Amazing pic ! *Chappeau*
    And I thought I might impress the crowd by bringing THIS ONE to your attention:
    ….but I guess I wont 😉
    Greetings from germany

  24. VS

    am kinda curious how astronomers identify dark spots from some other super imposed space object. am guessing may be they have different tools to study like x-ray analysis nevertheless curious how exactly.

  25. socratez

    That spacestation looks way to big for its altitude relative to the magnification.

  26. Dennis:

    Does this mean Canada officially owns the sun now?

    Nope. Angeles Duran owns it.

  27. So, any time in the next million or so years that a solar eclipse will occur during a transit of Mercury of Venus?

  28. mark stanford

    i believe it is the hubble space telescope not the space station. The body is to small. great shot, i wish i could do that.

  29. cy

    Thierry Legault.

    The best thing from France since….well ever.

  30. Moona

    Best thing from France is Daft Punk, then it’s Thierry Legault.


  31. Pops

    Man, this guy has got to be the very best astrophotog in the world. His pix are never less than beautiful and startling.

  32. DrFlimmer

    I am out of adjectives to describe this picture! Holy Moly!

    On the other hand, I was quite upset with all the clouds between me and the moon this morning in Germany. Especially, since other parts of the sky were clear, but where the sun and the moon were hanging around it had to be overcast. At least, I had a few brief moments in which I could take a look at it. And even that was awesome.
    I wonder how many people missed this event….

  33. Is that a Tie Fighter!

  34. That’s no ISS. It is an Imperial Tie-Fighter. :)

  35. Nige

    Wow the ISS has been doing a lot of photobombing lately…

  36. FuzzyTheBear

    Looks like the Canada flag to me .. are you sure it ain’t one of them crazy Canucks pulling a stunt/practical joke on him ? 😉
    Great pic :)

  37. Is that an X-Wing fighter?

  38. Joseph G

    I think I just had an astrophotogasm. I need to find Mr. Legault so I can have a cigarette with him :)

  39. pnschi

    Using “pixelstick” to measure off the screen, and the sun’s angular size at perihelion of 32.53 arc minutes, the ISS’s angular size from the mid-point of the left solar array to the mid-point of the right solar array is ~0.147 mrad. Assuming the line between the arrays is perpendicular to the view, and that the actual distance thereof is 80m, the distance to the ISS from the camera is ~546 km. Since the altitude of the ISS is between 347 and 360 km, it would have to be very far off the zenith to reach 546 km. But this eclipse was at around noon local time in Oman, which is almost tropical, so I would expect it to be within ~30 degrees of zenith.

    I guess the discrepancy is due to any foreshortening of the ISS axis I used for the measurement – i.e., if it’s not actually perpendicular to the view, the effective length is less than 80 m. If it’s, say, 60m, one gets a distance of 410 km, which sounds plausible…

  40. QuietDesperation

    Depth of field shots are always good. There’s one out there with Pluto and a distant galaxy,

  41. Messier Tidy Upper

    Seen a lot of these breath-taking Thierry Legault ISS transit images over the years here – & I’ll never tire of it. Astonishing still & he’s managed to top himself with this one. Eclipse, Sun, Moon, space station / TIE fighter. Yep, I’d say this was his best yet. :-)

    Baffled at how anything here resembles the Canadian flag – a distinctive red on white maple leaf design versus yellow Sun with a partial Lunar bite out of it, a sunspot or two and the International Space Station – though.

  42. AliCali

    @ 30 VS

    “am kinda curious how astronomers identify dark spots from some other super imposed space object. am guessing may be they have different tools to study like x-ray analysis nevertheless curious how exactly.”

    There are a few easy ways.

    Firstly, just watch the spot. A sunspot is on the surface of the Sun, so the spot will rotate with the surface of the Sun. If it was an object in between the Earth and the Sun, then it will move at a vastly different rate. For instance, while the sun takes about 25-30 days to rotate once, that space station was there for less than one second. It zips right by.

    Another way is to watch many spots and learn how they look. There are a few broad categories of sunspots, and they have very similar characteristics, such as a dark center with little dots around it. If this were a planet, then the spot would be perfectly round and uniformly dark.

  43. Right now, I’m on an old PowerBook with, frankly, a little bit smallish screen. So, I could only see the top half of the photo first.

    “Yawn”, thought I, “ISS on top of Sun. I’ve seen this before.”

    Page down.

    “HOLY S%&!!!!”

  44. Unbelievable – there are people inside that thing!

  45. SSR

    A work of art indeed.

  46. Cher

    sorry – I can’t but wonder if this is a farce. It would be a shame if falsified wth photo shop. if not, really really awesome.

  47. Ed Davies

    pnschi #47: It’s not far past northern hemisphere mid-winter now so the Sun’s pretty much on the Tropic of Capricorn. Oman is just north of the Tropic of Cancer so that’s 46° off the zenith for starters. Any time before or after local noon will add more angle.

  48. Pete

    Holy crap it’s a Tie Fighter!

  49. Phil Bear

    Looks a bit like Pac-Man.

  50. J

    By similar triangles, the width of the projected image blocked by the space station would be in the same proportion to the distance from the earth to the sun as the width of the space station is to the height of its orbit. This means that the project blocked image would have a width given by:

    147,000,000 * 100/350 = 42,000,000 meters. The sun has a diameter of 1.39 million kilometers, or 1390 million meters, which means the projected blocked image sould be 42/1390 of the diameter of the sun or about 3% of the diameter of the sun. Measurement of the photo is consistent with this. I started out thinking this would be way off and prove it was a digitally manipulated image, but in fact, the numbers work.


  51. Craig H

    Is this a still photo or a frame from a video? It would seem to me that to travel all that way and hope to time a shot down to a second or less would be silly – better to use a video to record the event and pull out the good stuff.

    Just sayin’.

  52. Wayne H

    Phil, the “click to embigmagnificate” link is down.

  53. In Orbit

    wow.. possible? have to check the orbit once more..

  54. John

    The first thing my wife said was that it looks like the Canadian flag! :-)

  55. All i can say is WOW!!!

  56. Sammy

    So, maybe I’m not getting it… If the sunspot is twice the size of the Earth, how does the ISS cast just as large a shadow? Also, I can see the moon blocking out a portion of the sun, but what is casting the shadow of the ISS if the shadow appears on the sun? I guess I need further explanation…

  57. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ 48. QuietDesperation :

    Depth of field shots are always good. There’s one out there with Pluto and a distant galaxy,

    Were you thinking of this one :

    Of Pluto crossing a rich star cluster Messier 24 with dark nebulae Barnard 92 and 93 by any chance? Or a different one given that’s a star cluster and dark clouds ratheer than a galaxy? But that’s the only one that comes to mind for me. If it *was* a galaxy can you recall which galaxy or even just which type of galaxy it was, please?

  58. Bob

    And to think it’s all happening in a studio in LA

  59. Rob

    If you stare at this image of the ISS for 20 seconds, and look away and blink, you see the Canadian flag…

  60. zoso33


  61. WJM

    On the hi-res version I see a little tiny Maple Leaf flag, too, albeit not in the right colour scheme.

    And I’m Canadian. So there.

  62. Doug

    @Sammy, the sunspot is on the Sun, about a million times further away than the ISS. The ISS isn’t casting a shadow on the Sun, it’s appearing in silhouette (casting a shadow on the Earth) – just as the Moon is.

  63. Am I the only one that sees a TIE Fighter and not a space station?

  64. It is a very beautiful photo!!

  65. DSV

    And right between the ISS and the sun spot, I can see Hawaii passing by.
    Talk about coincidence!

  66. Pep Pep

    It’s just an upside-down PacMan, anyone can see that!

  67. Yes, it’s a TIE Fighter! :)

  68. HB

    Good to know that the astronauts on the ISS could see the eclipse as well :-)

  69. dsgerh

    , albeit not in the right colour scheme.

    And I’m Canadian. So there.

  70. kurt_eh

    (In my best Doctor/Matt Smith voice)

    Pictures of ISS transiting the Sun are cool…

  71. mark stanford

    I stand corrected, the solar array gives it away.

  72. This is NOT the ISS, this is a Tie Fighter!

  73. Greg

    @71 It’s not the shadow of the ISS, it [i]is[/i] the ISS. The space station is physically passing in front of the sun from our perspective and blocking its light to the camera, same as the moon is doing. The (extremely tiny) shadow of the ISS is on Earth, not the Sun. Check the diagram in the wiki of solar eclipse and imagine the ISS orbiting inside the circle of the moon, casting a similar little shadow just next to the dark shadow of the moon. That’s exactly what’s happening in the picture.

  74. Archytype

    @ 2. magista Says:
    January 4th, 2011 at 10:56 am
    Phil, can we assume that that sunspot is an unresolved double? They do have to occur in pairs, don’t they?

    I think you are correct in this, the corresponding sunspot would appear on the opposite side of the sun and in the northern hemisphere at a corresponding latitude.

  75. nic

    Thierry Legault iss the king of the spheres.

  76. rob

    Thierry Legault FTW! nice photo. keep ’em coming!

  77. Jon H

    Was any kind of filter used?

  78. Jon H

    Silly bugger had his thumb over the lens.


  79. alex

    I wonder. Sun’s angular diameter is 0.5 degree. So, if the station crosses it in 1 second, it will make 360 degrees in 720 seconds.

    Can’t believe it’s orbital period is just 12 minutes. Where am I wrong?

  80. carl smith

    are tie fighters made in canada then ?

  81. Realmente muito inprecionante

  82. Bob_In_Wales

    Brian Cox just showed this picture on BBC2’s Stargazing Live show tonight.

  83. Spactacular! Just to think that in 1960 JFK talked about hitting a bullet with a bullet when describing the problem of an ABM intercepting an ICBM. This guy has essentially done just that photographically. Congratulations for the high end thinking.

  84. That is just plain awesome!

  85. Dave F

    Does anyone else think that looks like aTIE fighter from star wars?

  86. Everyone knows it was really a Tie Fighter. Just ask Assange.

  87. Obi wan
  88. JF

    Damn, I was hoping it was a Tie Fighter!

  89. i saw it and thought TIE fighter, as I see others have done. I love when reality models science fiction design, even unintentionally.

  90. Ben

    To have the commitment, astronomical foresight, mathematical ability, photographic skill, (and financial resources) necessary to transport oneself into the right geographical location at the right time, with the right equipment, set in advance at the right settings, in order — at the right moment — to snap a view that lasts less than a second — Wow!

  91. Nigel Depledge

    This pic is made of Awesome!

    I first saw it last night on Stargazing Live, a BBC programme presented by Brian Cox and Dara O Briain. Favourite line from this sequence of programmes: “. . . and, for the sake of balance, we should mention that astrology is a load of rubbish” (from a previous transmission, not from last night’s).

  92. here’s another nice picture for you, of the moon and the sun and a plane:

    ok, a plane is not on the same class of coolness as the ISS, but it’s still something.

  93. michael leask

    mental picture,seriously good planning.

  94. cheeman

    Absolutely phenomenal. One of the countless inspirations that makes us adore photography!

  95. hohumm_toronto

    thats the canada flag .

  96. Matt

    Phil, the curve of the moon’s silhouette is not very smooth.

    Is that just the sun bleeding past the moon’s edge, or are we actually seeing the geography of the moon there?

  97. Scott

    I see your schwartz is as big as mine.

  98. Craciunel

    what about this, with a plane passing in front of the eclipsed sun

    It’s from Romania, near Bucharest. In an interview, the guy said that he took the picture on the emergency lane of the highway A2. Even the highway police stopped to tell the to go away because it was a dangerous place to take photos.

    Completely nuts!

  99. un malpaso

    It’s a very good picture of the Sun, shame that the moon and that space station got in the way though. What are the chances of that, huh? Oh well, beginners mistake.

    lol j/k 😀

    I think these pics are very cool. I love to see the heavens in motion all together in one frame like this… including the parts that we have made and sent up there.

  100. LakeWWWooder

    I’m sure it’s Will Robinson, Dr. Smith and the Robot.

  101. Joseph G

    @#145 Matt: I had a similar question about another eclipse photo a few months ago. Yes, that really is the topography of the moon you’re seeing. Cool, eh? 😀

  102. Ketan

    Great pic.. so much discussion around it.. but what’s the use of this pic?

  103. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Ketan : What’s the use of a new born baby? 😉

    How about because it is an intrinsically beautiful and enjoyable and clever shot?

  104. Ketan

    Hmm.. makes sense.. if you think by heart! I was just wondering if its really worth taking these many efforts just to capture three objects coming in line.. i mean.. a simple photoshop trick would have done exactly the same job in minutes. But its all about the feeling i guess.. And if it really happened within a fraction of second as claimed here, then its worth a praise..
    (I am sorry.. but my brain is not able to conceive how a space station can cross the sun we see within a fraction of second.. i can’t imagine a man-made thing moving that fast..)

  105. Hole

    Cool photo, but sorry, I don’t think that’s the ISS.
    1) The silouette does not match the ISS: The ISS is T-shaped, so the silouette would be drastically different that what is presented in this photo. If the ISS is viewed on the axis of the main solar panels, (and there was perfect alignment of the two end-sets of panels) there should be the round center, a solar panel to one side, then a solar panel AND a thick silouette of the tangential pods/units to one side.
    2) The configuration of the solar panels does not match the ISS: The panels in the photo show the panels are mounted so they rotate like a propeller, was compared to the panels on the ISS which rotate on thier long axis.

    I think this is the Hubble or a KH satelite.

  106. Casey

    Here’s another awesome eclipse shot just released yesterday:

  107. maddie

    looks like an egg yolk

  108. Daniel

    Without Space shuttle (sticked on image) is a too simple image composition

  109. Chintan P

    Congratulations. Great work…:)

  110. Chris

    I thought it was a Canadian flag at first.

  111. Obi von idO

    Most Impressive!

    Next up I now expect a photo of the Death Star 😉

  112. first, many thanks to Phil and to all of you who have sent nice comments.
    Some answers:

    @Ken and Ketan : it’s not my (main) source of income, fortunately. I practice astronomy during spare time and vacancies. For this photo, intially I checked periodically the opportunities of seeing a solar transit of the ISS during the eclipse, considering that it may happen anywhere (including over my house, although it was not the most probable). When calculations showed that the only place was Oman, I got information about this country and discovered that it was a very nice (and safe) place to visit, with beautiful landscapes (sea, mountains, canyons and deserts). So I decided to spend 10 days in the area (including Dubai, not very far from there). Thus, the eclipse was not the only reason to travel there.

    @Jim: making this image with Photoshop would be the least interesting thing to do. The excitement lies in the preparation and the making of the image, in the adrenalin that comes with the challenge, and in the pleasure to see the ISS on the screen of the camera after shooting, just for myself before publishing it. As for many things, the way is more interesting than the aim :-)

    @Craig: it’s an image taken with a reflex camera in continuous shooting (4 fps during 4 seconds)

    @Alex: your mistake about angles comes from the fact that you are mixing different angles. 0.5°/s is a speed related to an angle as seen from the ground, although 360° (the orbit of the ISS) is related to an angle as seen from the center of the Earth.

    @Hole: if this silhouette is the HST, then this means that:
    – calsky confuses the orbital data of different satellites
    – the size of the silhouette shows that the altitude of the HST has suddenly considerably decreased (at least by a factor of 10), so that it won’t be long to reach the ground :-)))))

  113. really really awesome

  114. Hole

    Thierry Legault: My statements were only based on silouette comparison. Can the ISS present the silouette in the photo? No.
    It’s more likely it’s something else, and the only satelites that came to mind that would provide that satelite are the HST or a KH.
    Sometimes the less complex process provides more accurate information.

  115. Ian Stirling

    @hole – and look at the ‘print your own 10th aniversary space station calendar.

    Rotate 30 degrees or so anticlockwise.
    ‘Push’ the right-hand solar panel towards the sun, so it’s at an angle of around 45 degrees, to get the foreshortening.

    Looks damn close to me.

  116. AJ

    Shhh.. It’s really a Canadian flag.

  117. Nirman

    what the the black spot bottom at right corner? Real sun black sopt???? Pls explain..

  118. yes Nirman, it’s a big sunspot (bigger than the Earth, actually). There is also a group of smaller sunspots, close to the center of the disk.

  119. Bob

    I thought it was a tie fighter until I read the article.

  120. Absolutely awesome!!!
    And what a brilliant reason to take time off to see Oman!
    Excellence all around!

  121. jawa

    That’s really a tie fighter

  122. Sinisa

    It looks like the Canadian flag

  123. sin

    its obviously a tie fighter.

  124. Duh! Thats a tie-fighter, not the ISS.

  125. That was just awesome! Superb shot!


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