Discovery spacewalk seen from the ground

By Phil Plait | March 9, 2011 12:49 pm

I should copyright the phrase, "Thierry Legault has done it again!" because he does keep seeming to do it again! He is an "amateur" astronomer in Europe, and takes phenomenal pictures of spacecraft from the ground. And this one is pretty incredible: it shows NASA astronaut Steve Bowen doing a spacewalk during Discovery’s last flight to the space station!

Wow. In space, you can orbit but you can’t hide. [Click to enastronautenate.]

Thierry helpfully annotated the picture. The body of the station is to the right, and the bent joint of the robotic arm is obvious. The big blob labeled ammonia pump is just that; a pump that has failed, which Bowen was moving to a storage location. Just next to it, on the left, is a blurry but distinct blob that is a living, breathing astronaut in space! Thierry included a still from a NASA video to provide further support that what you are seeing is actually a man orbiting the Earth at nearly 30,000 kph.

[UPDATE: Thierry just informed me that as far as he can tell, this is the first clear shot of an astronaut ever seen from the ground. There have been claims in the past (like this one from 2009), but they have been very blurry and unable to be confirmed. Thierry’s still frame from the NASA video makes it clear he truly did see Bowen in his image. I did a quick search and was unable to find any other pictures taken from the ground that unequivocally show an astronaut. So, to Thierry: congrats!]

I am a rational person, or at least I try to be. I know the equipment Thierry used, the size of the space station, and the distance to it. It’s a simple matter of math to understand that an object as small as a man in a spacesuit can be seen from the ground, and distinguished from other objects nearby.

But to actually see it in a picture like this is thrilling. Simply wonderful.

Image credit: Thierry Legault, used with permission.

Related posts:

Insanely awesome solar eclipse picture
ANOTHER insanely awesome shot of the solar eclipse
When natural and artificial moons align
Extremely cool 3D space station video taken from the ground

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Pretty pictures

Comments (52)

  1. This is amazing. I would love the oporunity to actually see it through the telescope.

  2. Robert

    @Matt, I think you’d have to be quick, doesn’t the ISS move across the sky at a fair clip?

  3. Jan from Denmark

    That is one incredible picture !

    @Robert : You are right, he is using a very good and fast tracking system for the telescope, so tracking the ISS for some time, taking many pictures. I do not know if this is a single frame or not, it looks like it could very well be.

  4. Don

    When was Thierry’s picture taken? Another amateur astronomer, Martin Lewis, had a picture of his recognized on the 4th of this month.

    Edit: My bad, Thierry’s was taken at the end of February.

  5. Kevin McCoy

    Let this be a warning to future astronauts: Make sure you’re not on the European side of the Earth when you unzip for your bathroom breaks.

  6. At least it’s the first publicly-released shot showing an astronaut on EVA. There are anecdotal tales of what the USAF telescopes at Haleakala showed all the way back to Mir days – but obviously no pictures have been made public. And the Air Force telescopes are a great deal larger and costlier. I have enough trouble getting the thing in an eyepiece for 2 seconds to see the solar panels, let alone get even a recognizable image.

  7. I wouldn’t have believed it was possible. Wow.

  8. Beau

    Absolutely incredible!

  9. John Reiher

    Just goes to show: There Ain’t No Stealth In Space!

  10. Andrew W

    I know nothing of photography at this level, but get a snap of something moving sideways at about 8 km/s at this resolution to me is just incredible.
    How could this possibly be topped?

  11. Tom Huffman

    Phil – I hate to ‘hijack’ a thread; but, have you heard the latest news to come from Texas? The Texas House has introduced a bill banning ‘Discrimination against intelligent design research?’ State rep. Bill Zedler (R-arlington) introduced this Looney Tunes bill. The bill states:

    “An institution of higher education may not discriminate against or penalize in any manner, especially with regard to employment or academic support, a faculty member or student based on the faculty member’s or student’s conduct of research relating to the theory of intelligent design or other alternate theories of the origination and development of organisms.” ”

    There’s an article on the National Center for Science Education website:

  12. Sam H

    @#6 Kevin McCoy: LOL, nice one :)

    What’s that X-ray like blur to the upper left of the Canadarm assembly? Judging by the captions it looks like the front end of Discovery, but here it looks pretty strange…

  13. Messier Tidy Upper

    WOW!!! 😮 😀

    That is just astounding. Hard to believe that was taken on the ground looking up through our atmosphere rather than from a satellite nearby.

    Just wow. 8)

  14. Brian

    That “robotic arm” has a name… it’s the Canadarm.

  15. He is an “amateur” astronomer in Europe…

    Exactly. He’s a complete “amateur” with a nice telescope and a little spare time. Totally with you there Phil.

    But seriously, he’s a pro of the highest order who desperately needs to be given some sort of an award for his outstanding work. Maybe one day in the future, with advances in space travel, someone like me can offer to build a robot and test it in space just to look down on the Earth from hundreds of miles above it… But until then, just knowing that it is possible and we already do it is absolutely astounding.

  16. flip

    Totally off topic: but I like the new banner at the top of the page!

  17. Blake

    This is just too effing much. These must be far and away the highest resolution images of spacecraft ever taken from the ground by a non-government organization. This guy NEEDS to come to the dark side and start observing Keyhole and Lacrosse spysats. The revelations would be fascinating!

  18. J

    @ #5 Don: Thierry’s was taken of the Pump module which was on EVA1 Feb 28th, 2 days before the other one (which was EVA2)

    @#13 Sam H:
    The blur is the Columbus Module (possibly with the shuttle tail cutting across it). If you look at the whole bigger picture, the Shuttle is to the left of the box, tail and thrusters pointing towards us.

    @#15 Brian: technically it is the Canadarm2. 😉

  19. Completely amazing.

    I think it’s probably the best demonstration of the massive size of the ISS since you can see it relative to the tiny astronaut.

    It really is impressive that he has accomplished such great feats of photography so rapidly. It seems like every week there’s a Thierry Legault Success Show.

  20. Joseph G

    Hah! Upon seeing this, my first thought wasn’t “Wow, that’s neat” or “cool!” – it was “Oh, COME ON! Really!? You’re kidding, right!?”
    Seriously, Mr. Legault is so damned good it’s ridiculous. I’m surprised the CIA hasn’t given him a job designing surveillance missions for spy satellites. Or better yet, designing missions for ground-based telescopes to take pictures of other countries’ satellites…
    I wonder if other astrophotographers get pissed at him? I sure would! 😀

  21. Joseph G

    @21 Endyo: I know! It’s like he’s trying to outdo himself each and every time. First we get pictures of the ISS, then 3-D video of the ISS, then the ISS in front of the sun (with a shuttle), then the ISS in front of a full moon, then the ISS in front of a frickin’ partial solar eclipse! And now an actual astronaut.
    I honestly can’t imagine how he could ever top this, but then, I’ve had that thought several times before 😛

  22. Joseph G

    @Blake: Wow, that’s a cool site. I never even thought of trying to determine the properties of classified satellites from the ground (though I’m sure intelligence agencies all over the world are working on it).
    It also occurs to me that the methodology seems very similar to that used by astronomers observing very faint solar system objects (eg asteroids or KBOs).

  23. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ 6. Kevin McCoy : Let this be a warning to future astronauts: Make sure you’re not on the European side of the Earth when you unzip for your bathroom breaks.

    LOL! 😀

    @ 24. Joseph G : I honestly can’t imagine how he could ever top this, …

    Photographing an astronaut who is actually *inside* the International Space Station through one of it’s portholes perhaps? 😉

    @ 23. Joseph G : Seriously, Mr. Legault is so damned good it’s ridiculous. I’m surprised the CIA hasn’t given him a job …

    Maybe they already have? Would we know it if he was? 😉

  24. Geoff

    Now if only we could only get a picture of the luner lander to prove we were there!

  25. Bill Campini

    Excellent shot of ISS and of the astronaut. This guy should be proud of himself.

  26. Many thanks for your nice comments!

    @Jan: each image of the final video sequence is a combination of 15 successive (and registered) raw images. This helps to decrease noise and to make details appear. One cannot rely on a single raw image, as it can be affected by many defects: noise, blur due to movement, turbulence speckle etc. as demonstrated in this page:

    @Don: the image from Martin Lewis is interesting, but it does not show an astronaut. If you look at my image, you can see how small is the astronaut, compared to the surrounding structures. Now look at Lewis’ image: the bright spot supposed to be the astronaut is much much larger than mine. This means that the light coming from an astronaut (in limited quantity, considering its size) is spread over this large spot -why not- but the consequence would be that the light is dimmed in proportion, at a point that it shall become invisible. In other words, the combination of the size and the brightness of this spot indicates that the source cannot be an astronaut but that it’s a much larger structure, certainly a part of Colombus or another part of the ISS in the background. At best, it could be the robotic arm, but even in this case the presence or the absence of the astronaut would have changed nothing to the image (therefore we cannot say that Lewis’ image shows an astronaut, not more than I am allowed to say that my image shows the ten fingers of Steve Bowen, or to say that my photo of the Sea of Tranquillity shows the lunar module :-) )

    @Sam: the upper left structures are the end of Colombus module and the vertical stabilizer of Discovery.

  27. Nigel Depledge

    Geoff (27) said:

    Now if only we could only get a picture of the luner lander to prove we were there!

    We already have these. In close-up and glorious colour. They were taken by the Apollo astronauts while they were on the moon. If these pics don’t convince the HBs (hoax believers), what will a pic taken from anywhere else accomplish?

    (And, BTW, it’s a different kettle of fish altogether to try to take a photo of something small [<= 4 m across] on the surface of the moon about 240,000 miles away compared with taking a shot like this of something only a couple of hundrred miles away.)

  28. This man, Legault, this French man, clearly has too much talent.

    His talent must immediately be separated from his person and evenly divided among the masses.

    I kid. Seriously, Thierry, do you have children? If not, I encourage you to breed. Good genes must be passed along.

  29. Mary

    I had a look at his website. This is crazy stuff! WOW! Tremendously amazing!
    He does a link to a page explaining how he modified his telascope for satellite viewing and practiced by tracking airplanes.

  30. Amadan

    It’s obviously a fake:

    1. No footprints are visible.
    2. The “photographer” has a suspiciously French name. (Just like Galileo and Einstein)
    3. At that distance, spacemen are all PYGMIES AND DWARFS

    But of course our Illizardati Overlords will ensure I’m just laughed at. Anyone who threatens the Disney-Masonic Hegemony will face quick and ruthless retali

  31. Steve

    My son is friends with Steve Bowen’s sons (they are on a high school swim team together and carpool to practice). My son forwarded this to his son so the Bowen family has this link.

  32. Steve, it would be very nice to help me to contact Steve Bowen, I would really like to discuss a little bit with him (I want to say at least: “hey, I got you!” :-) )

    Kuhnigget: I’m not sure this has to do with talent or with hard work and training (and a little bit of -assumed- craziness), but the fact that my daughter (28) has never been interested at all in astronomy make me think that it’s the second possibility :-)

  33. Tony

    I wonder if this was taken while Bowen was forced to hold on to the ammonia pump for 20 minutes while the crew re-booted the Robotics Work Station after a s/w bug caused it to spontaneously shut down…

    @21. J: *Technically* it’s the SSRMS 😛

  34. Joseph G

    @Thierry Legault: Wow, speak of the devil 😀 I was actually going to suggest that Phil invite you to come say talk to us, so this is a great surprise!
    I’m a complete newbie to astronomy/astrophotography, so I don’t really know enough to ask you any questions, though I’d like to.

    Edit: Actually, one comes to mind: I see on your equipment page that you use an equatorial mount. Do you use it just because it’s useful for tracking celestial objects, or does it have any advantage over an alt/azimuth mount when tracking orbiting objects like the ISS? I hope it’s not an obvious question, like I said, I’m a total newbie, but your images always make me want to learn more about this stuff so that I might try it myself one day.
    Thanks much!!

  35. réalta fuar

    As great as this image is, it was only a matter of time as I’ve been saying for the past few years that people like Thierry Legault had already demonstrated the ability to do this from the resolution in their previous images. What they needed was enough near-by passes with enough good weather, WITH an EVA where the astronaut wasn’t blocked by something. KUDOS as it has to be gratifying to be the first!

  36. Steve

    To Theirry….I have his home email but don’t feel comfortable giving it out unless I ask him which I will do. If he agrees I will let you know via the email listed on your website.

  37. it’s ok Steve, I would do the same, thank you so much for your help!

    @Joseph: your question is not obvious at all, and I would reply: it depends :-)
    For manual tracking, the mount must have very precise and smooth movements, as we can find on good quality Dobsonians. For motorized tracking however, an altazimuthal mount is not the best solution because, in the area of zenith, the mount has to rotate a high speed in azimuth (calculation even shows that at zenith, the speed of rotation of the mount in azimuth becomes infinite!). So I prefer an equatorial mount, aligned in space so that the ISS follows the “equator” of the mount and the main movement is in R.A.. Practically, the polar axis is directed at 90° from the plane of the passage of the ISS (for example, if the ISS passes at 60° altitude towards north, the polar axis of the mount is set to a latitude of 30° and directed to south.

  38. Aleksandar Kuktin

    Okay, this practice of photographing ever cooler stuff is officially starting to get disturbing. :) And a little bit creepy. :)

    But I still like my wallpaper with ISS in front of the Moon. :)

    edit: typo

  39. Very, very cool.

    As for the naysayers, just ignore them. It validates their position to argue against them. They have abdicated their place at the table with willful ignorance.

  40. Kathy K

    Well, we’ve seen how good Google Earth satellite pictures can be, it was only a matter of time before it worked in the other direction. Very well done!

  41. Joseph G

    @Thierry Legault: I’m probably late, but just in case you’re still here : Many thanks! A
    nd I didn’t even think of adjusting the equatorial mount axis to be perpendicular to the plane of the orbiting body. Good pro tip! :)

  42. After careful examination of Martin Lewis’s image, my opinion is that he has detected,
    not the astronaut itself, but the block containing the astronaut, the joint at the end of the arm and the visible part of the final leg of the arm. His image looks sound, free of artefacts and well supported by NASA data analysis.


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