Ridiculously awesome pic of Discovery and the ISS taken from the ground!

By Phil Plait | February 28, 2011 6:30 am

At some point, you look at a picture and think, it is seriously insane that we can do this. Behold: the Orbiter Discovery approaching the International Space Station, as seen from the ground:

I think I remember that scene from Star Wars!

This remarkable picture was taken by Rob Bullen on Saturday February 26 from the UK, using an 8.5″ telescope. I’ll note that’s relatively small as telescopes go! But the ISS is now over 100 meters long, and if it’s directly overhead (that is, the closest it can be to an observer on the ground) it appears large enough to easily look elongated in binoculars — in fact, it would be big enough to look elongated to someone with good eyesight and no aid at all*! Still, images like this are difficult to obtain even with a carefully guided telescope equipped with a video camera.

Oh — did I mention that Rob hand-guided his telescope for this shot?

Yeah. Wow.

This is a remarkable piece of photography involving excellent timing, good weather (it had been cloudy at Rob’s location almost up until that moment), and luck. But the equation for luck is really just (hard work + preparation) x (time) x (statistical fluctuations).

Clearly, the "hard work + preparation" was the most heavily weighted factor for Rob, and it paid off for him handsomely.

[UPDATE: Another phenomenal astrophotographer, BA favorite Thierry Legault, has posted a stunning animation of an ISS/Discovery flyover on his website.]

Image used by permission of Rob Bullen. Tip o’ the unsharp mask to Wil Wheaton, who let me know about this on reddit.


* Here’s some math for you: The minimum distance to the ISS if it’s overhead is about 350 km. It’s about 100 meters across, so, using the small angle formula, that means it’s apparent size is about 1 arcminute (a degree is 60 arcminutes, and the full Moon is about 30 arcminutes in size). The unaided human eye, assuming normal eyesight, can resolve objects that are about that size, so as I wrote the ISS would barely appear elongated to someone with good eyesight, and would be easily resolved in binoculars. The farther it is from overhead, the smaller it would appear, so conditions have to be just about perfect to see it as more than a dot without binoculars.


Related posts:

- INSANELY awesome solar eclipse picture
- 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

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Pretty pictures

Comments (58)

  1. Darrell E

    That is about 18 kinds of awesome right there.

  2. Astonishing. One can imagine the astronauts tethered to the shuttle as the do a space walk to the station. Someone tell them to wave to us as we try to snap our photos! :)

  3. alfaniner

    If you look close enough, you can see Paolo Nespoli in the window of the ISS taking a picture. :)

  4. PaulD

    Hang on, there was clear sky in the UK! I must have missed it, DAM!

    Stunning image!

  5. Eric

    Fantastic shot! That’s a keeper.

  6. William Seligman

    You remember this scene from Star Wars. I remember it from 2001: A Space Odyssey. To each generation, its own images.

  7. Phil, it is almost makes me sad that you “think [you] remember that scene from Star Wars!” instead from that QUALITY movie:
    http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_N-4ASXXQfUg/RqZl2k2gITI/AAAAAAAAAE8/Dx5Mqjy_Sqk/s320/2001orion.jpg

  8. I think I remember that scene from Star Wars!

    Nonsense. That’s plainly a Cardassian battlecruiser firing on a Federation runabout.

  9. This was the best I could manage, in a 2/21 pass over the Denver area…

    http://toby5280.blogspot.com/2011/02/022711.html

  10. This picture is even more amazing when you consider how fast those objects are moving… (Over 17,000 mph). Also, this photo seems to have been taken during Discovery’s 9-minute backflip maneuver

  11. Wow… hand-guided? That’s crazy. I can’t even hand-guide my telescope to look at Jupiter half the time. it amounts of 5 minutes of me trying to get it in the main scope and then I have to focus. I guess some people are just awesome. So why do the solar panels look a little croocked on the top end?

  12. Electro

    I know next to nothing about photography, but could someone explain what is causing the noticible, coarse halo around the station and orbiter?
    Looks like a scrap book page.

  13. yargnad

    Rob is actually a P.I. and Paolo’s wife just wants to know what he’s been doing up there so long.

  14. jfb

    “Seriously insane” is an understatement.

    Never mind the angular resolution, how fast were those suckers tracking across the sky?

  15. Kayla Iacovino
  16. colagirl

    I think I remember that scene from Star Wars!

    Actually I think it’s the Serenity approaching Niska’s orbital platform. Hi Wash!

  17. Elwood Herring

    Fake! Where are the stars?

    (Just kidding!)

  18. Trebuchet

    The skill and dedication of “amateur” astronomers like this just blows me away. I have a hard enough time just following the ISS with binoculars. I’ve tried with a small telescope and never even got it in the field of view.

  19. Ok the Update is way more awesome than the original. Hand-guided or not, that’s an incredible video. The change in the viewing angle is what makes it so great really.

  20. kurt_eh

    In the immortal words of one Mr. Reeves:

    “Whoa!”

  21. reflection nebula

    I would like to ‘correct’ the equation for luck :)
    (hard work + preparation) x (time)
    —————————————————-
    (statistical fluctuations)

    because fewer fluctuations result in better luck

  22. reflection nebula (24): I think it’s multiplication, because the MORE fluctuations you get the more likely you’ll get what you want.

  23. Thomas

    It’s clearly a scene from the Bond movie Moonraker.

  24. Amazing picture. Last year I had the opportunity to see the spacestation soar across the sky. It looked amazing.

  25. réalta fuar

    This type of “lucky imaging” is actually HELPED by having small apertures. You want to have an aperture large enough so the diffraction limit is a bit smaller than the local seeing disk size (many of the best imagers shoot from areas with quite mediocre seeing). Turbulence in the atmosphere becomes significant at scales of 10-20 cm (for good sites). Once your aperture is larger than that, you’re “seeing limited” and resolution doesn’t increase with aperture. Another way of saying this is that once you have multiple blobs of air bigger than the above (called r nought) moving above your scope, your resolution can’t get any better (without adaptive optics, which effectively increases r nought) . The ISS (and Jupiter and Saturn) are bright enough that you can do the very short (milliseconds) integrations needed to “freeze”
    the seeing with 8-12 inch scopes. Take big bunches of images, keep the best, shift and stack (and add a lot of experience = “art”) and maybe you’ll get a great image. To the best of my knowledge, this technique and the software to do it was invented and perfected by amateurs.
    And Reflection Nebula was right: you want the atmosphere to be STABLE = fewer fluctuations so a higher percentage of images are usable. This is why it’s possible to get great planetary images from places where the seeing is not particularly good and the transparency is worse. Don Parker’s images from Florida come to mind.
    There is lots of information about this, as well as free software, available on the web. I’ve seen stunning images taken with 50 euro webcams.

  26. réalta fuar

    This type of “lucky imaging” is actually HELPED by having small apertures. You want to have an aperture large enough so the diffraction limit is a bit smaller than the local seeing disk size (many of the best imagers shoot from areas with quite mediocre seeing). Turbulence in the atmosphere becomes significant at scales of 10-20 cm (for good sites). Once your aperture is larger than that, you’re “seeing limited” and resolution doesn’t increase with aperture. Another way of saying this is that once you have multiple blobs of air of this size (called r nought) moving above your scope, your resolution can’t get any better (without adaptive optics, which effectively increases r nought) . The ISS (and Jupiter and Saturn) are bright enough that you can do the very short (milliseconds) integrations needed to “freeze”
    the seeing with 8-12 inch scopes. Take big bunches of images, keep the best, shift and stack (and add a lot of experience = “art”) and maybe you’ll get a great image. To the best of my knowledge, this technique and the software to do it was invented and perfected by amateurs (Ron Dantowitz comes to mind).
    And Reflection Nebula was right: you want the atmosphere to be STABLE = fewer fluctuations so a higher percentage of images are usable. This is why it’s possible to get great planetary images from places where the seeing is not particularly good and the transparency is worse. Don Parker’s images from Florida are great examples. There is lots of information about this, as well as free software, available on the web. I’ve seen stunning images taken with 50 euro webcams.

  27. HvP

    Electro, “could someone explain what is causing the noticible, coarse halo around the station and orbiter?”

    Looking at the picture, it appears that he has masked out the ISS and shuttle in order to brighten it and up the contrast against the background noise. Unfortunately, the mask isn’t smooth which leaves a hard edge, and this also made the noise within the brightened area more obvious too.

    This kind of noise is the result of random fluctuations affecting the sensor and is a normal result of having to take digital photos in low light. You can still see similar noise in the background but it’s much darker because he didn’t lighten those parts.

    Still an amazing capture.

  28. HvP

    …edit above. Atmospheric turbulence scattering the light of the objects probably also played a role too.

  29. réalta fuar

    oops, my apologies for the double post! Feel free to delete the first one as I got distracted while editing.

  30. Aleksandar Kuktin

    Yeah. Brain’s sanity center scrambled. Too awesome for me.

  31. Probably a freighter-tanker refueling.

  32. Grand Lunar

    “I think I remember that scene from Star Wars!”

    I think you have your movies mixed up, Phil.

    Clearly it’s from ’2001′!
    Too bad it’s not a rotating torus….

    Anyway, this is insanely great work!

  33. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Grand Lunar : Too bad it’s not a rotating torus….

    Indeed. I wonder if & when anyone will build that archetypal toroidal shaped space station? Anyone know if there are any plans to do so?

    Or an O’neill colony ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Island_Three )

    So we finally have something like a DS9 or a Babylon-5 type station ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Babylon_5_(space_station) ) in existence.

    Of course, we can do without the Shadows ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shadow_(Babylon_5) ) turning up & wrecking the place! ;-)

    Still I wonder if a bolder more appealing (?) design like those would win more public interest and support than the International Space Station has?

    Anyway, this is insanely great work!

    It sure is. Jaw-dropping *and* breathtaking photography here.

    Congratulations and thankyou for this Rob Bullen! 8)

    (Thanks the BA too as always for sharing it with us all and for the superluminous blog.)

  34. Corellianrogue

    To the people saying it’s like 2001: A Space Odyssey and not Star Wars I don’t think you get the reference. I’m pretty sure the article is talking about the scene in Star Wars near the beginning where Luke is looking at the Star Destroyer attacking the Tantive IV through his macrobinoculars then tells his friends about it. (So is therefore like someone watching Discovery docking with the ISS through binoculars or a simple and not very powerful telescope.)

  35. Malcolm

    I keep looking at this photo and keep expecting the camera to zoom in on Serenity rather than Discovery. (Then hear that familiar guitar/fiddle leitmotif.)

  36. jfb

    Dammit, now I think of it…

    “That’s no moon…”

  37. Capt Tommy

    Dear friends you are incorrect in refering to Star Wars… go back to 1968.

    The angle is almost just right and the music? Why, “The Blue Danube” of course.

    Shame the station doesn’t have those lovely rings though.

    You have to gues the rest.

    Enjoy.

  38. Joseph G

    Wow. I’ve never actually seen the ISS, and seeing it from such a small scope is amazing enough… But in terms of hand-guided tracking… wow. I just had to do some figures: Given its speed of 27,743 kph and width of about 108 meters, that means that the station is going to be moving at over 71 times its width every second.
    I say again, wow. I’ll bet the photographer is a world-class skeet shooter! :D

  39. 43 – Corellianrogue – sadly, unlike us, most people are unfamiliar with the great deleted scene from the original Star Wars, featuring Biggs Darklighter’s introduction. It did aprear in the comic, the novel, and various behind-the-scenes books, and the footage was included on a CD-ROM that accompanied one of those books. That footage can be located online in ultra-low-quality video. Just look up the phrase “Probably a freighter-tanker refueling.”

  40. OMG this picture just blew me away…

  41. Steve

    Rob, you’ve turned off your targeting computer…

  42. stephen russell

    Share with Science museums, other sites, NASA & UK.
    Nice shooting. Too bad not in Color.

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