SERIOUSLY jaw-dropping pictures of Endeavour and the ISS!

By Phil Plait | June 6, 2011 6:00 am

Thierry Legault is a wonder. His astrophotos and shots of orbiting satellites have graced this blog many, many times (see Related Posts below), but even so I get a thrill every time he sends me a note about new pictures. Wanna know why? Check this out: Endeavour docked on the International Space Station:

Holy. Haleakala! [Click to embiggen; note that the images shown here are also done with Emmanuel Rietsch.]

This may be the most amazing shot of an Orbiter and ISS I have ever seen! Oh… and did I mention this was taken from the ground? Yegads.

The detail is incredible; you can see features on Endeavour, the open payload bay doors, and all sorts of accoutrements on the station itself (including the newly-installed the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-2). This picture actually shows three frames from a video; as the ISS and Orbiter pass overhead their angle to the ground changes, and you can see that in the sequence. The video itself is embedded on his website, and you have to see it to believe it. He has 3D versions, too!

And there’s more. As Endeavour was on approach to dock with ISS he got this amazing shot of it silhouetted against the Sun (click to see it in full-res, and yes, you really really want to). The time window for getting a picture with the Orbiter and ISS like this is just a matter of hours; it’s hard enough figuring out where and when on Earth to see the Orbiter against the Sun, but to happen to nail it when it’s only a hundred meters from the ISS is mind-boggling. I love how the clouds add a bit of drama to the scene, too. It doesn’t hurt that several sunspots are dotting the disk of the Sun, too. The space station looks odd, but you’re seeing it from the side, so it’s more edge-on.

This next one may give you more of a sense of scale here:

This shot, taken a few days earlier, shows Endeavour still docked to the ISS. You can see it more clearly in the zoom here; again, the detail is amazing. The pair were about 500 km (300 miles) from the camera when this shot was taken. The entire transit — the time it took for the spacecraft to cross the face of the Sun — was only about a half second!

Incidentally, the weird speckly appearance of the Sun’s surface in that picture is real: those are convection cells, enormous regions where hot plasma from inside the Sun rises, cools, and sinks back down into the interior. These are technically called granules, and can be well over 1000 km across. Of course, they’re on the Sun which is several hundred thousand times farther away than the space station. That makes them look a wee bit smaller.

And finally, I love this picture: I sometimes call the Orbiter a "space plane", but shots like this really (pardon the pun) bring it home. In the picture on the right (taken just minutes before Endeavour made its last de-orbit burn to return to Earth) you can even see the dark vertical line on the Orbiter’s tail fin! I think the dark horizontal line just below it is the shadow of the wing on the fuselage; the level of detail is just low enough to make that hard to discern. It might be the foreshortened black underside of the wing.

Thierry and Emmanuel use excellent equipment, but still. Yikes. Taking pictures like these take a lot of planning and traveling (Thierry told me he went to Germany, France, and Spain to get these shots), and the experience needed really shines through. These pictures are phenomenal.

It’s too bad there’s only one more Shuttle space shot left; I wonder what Thierry and others like him will do for that mission. I know there will always be interesting hardware up there in orbit to photograph, so I hope that even after the Sun sets on the Shuttle missions there will still be amazing pictures coming from the astrophotography community.

Image credits: Thierry Legault and Emmanuel Rietsch. Used with permission.


Related posts:

- Discovery spacewalk seen from the ground!
- INSANELY awesome solar eclipse picture!
- ISS, Shuttle transit the Sun
- EXTREMELY cool 3D Space Station video – taken from the ground!
- When natural and artificial moons align

Comments (29)

  1. Pete Jackson

    I think people like Thierry will be excellent sources of information when China starts its own space station and sends more manned missions into space. They tend to be secretive about what they are doing, but we can hope that the sharp cameras of Thierry et al. will catch them!

  2. I recall that some people did get pretty good shots of Shenzhou craft in orbit on their previous missions. I imagine the technology has only gotten better since then.

  3. Steve

    Amazing, simply amazing.

  4. “Thierry and Emmanuel use excellent equipment”

    And I thought you were going to finish up by saying “and remember, this was taken using only a pair of sunglasses and a mobile phone from 2003!” Ah, well…

  5. Tom

    The middle and right-hand images of the ISS and Shuttle make a VERY good cross-eyed view 3D image.

  6. Sam H

    As always, the fact that he manages to perfectly nail it every damn time is amazing and unbelievable. BTW: I hear that one of Bigelow’s (the guys behind the Genesis I and II inflatable orbiting modules) next projects would involve a space station with blinking running lights. How bright might they’d have to be to see them from the ground (and when in Earth’s shadow?)

  7. Don´t Panic

    I have a soccer field in front of my house (lightpolution is a understatement!), anyway.
    That thing is 100×50 mtrs.
    The size of the ISS. And ok, a soccerfield is flat. ISS is not.
    But sometimes I visualize the station in front of me.
    And every time it impresses me no end when I go out to look at the ISS when it passes and see that field.
    And it all started with puny little Vostocks and Mecuries.
    Things that ould sit comfortable side by side on my terras with some room to spare.

  8. feh

    The ISS in the 2nd picture looks like some sort of alien spaceship. Kind of reminds me of the Minmatar vessels in EVE Online… Amazing pictures.

  9. bigjohn756

    I downloaded the DivX AVI file and am now using it for my desktop. Thanks to VLC media player.

  10. I made a 3D version for those with anaglyph glasses.

    http://img638.imageshack.us/img638/6592/shuttlestation3d.jpg

    (but watch the 3D movies linked above for a much better view – WOW)

  11. Excellent work. His images are truly an inspiration.
    Wow!

  12. Its awesome! I love the clouds too. This reminds me of the movie, SUNSHINE. Anyone ever seen it?

  13. Nagesh

    @5 Tom, Yes it really works. One can use either left and middle or right and middle pictures. Thanks!

  14. roy

    is there any real picture that shows the earth in comparison s to the sun

  15. Joseph G

    Phil wrote: The time window for getting a picture with the Orbiter and ISS like this is just a matter of hours; it’s hard enough figuring out where and when on Earth to see the Orbiter against the Sun, but to happen to nail it when it’s only a hundred meters from the ISS is mind-boggling.

    You mean the time window just to get a shot – of the ISS and Shuttle like that – is a matter of hours, right? The time window to get a shot of the ISS (or anything in low earth orbit) transiting the Sun is something like a fraction of a second, IIRC?

    @Cynthia: The scientific premise (restarting the sun with a ginormous nuke) was pretty ludicrous, but it was indeed some wonderful film-making. I liked the music, and the acting and cinematography were awesome.

    I saw an interview with the director about it, and as I suspected, it was actually influenced by ‘Silent Running,’ another good sci-fi flick about people going nuts in the vastness of space :)
    Another thing I thought was cool was that the suits’ helmets were designed to give the viewer a sense of claustrophobia, and they worked – on the actors, too! Which was great from an acting standpoint, but pretty rough on the actors :P

  16. Joseph G

    By the way, where does one get anaglyph glasses? More to the point, where do you get good ones (that aren’t made of cardboard and cellophane).

  17. Joseph G

    @1. Pete Jackson I think people like Thierry will be excellent sources of information when China starts its own space station and sends more manned missions into space. They tend to be secretive about what they are doing, but we can hope that the sharp cameras of Thierry et al. will catch them!

    Heh, I had that thought before, but this image is even clearer!
    At the very least, he’ll probably be able to sell some pictures to Janes and Stratfor and publications like that ;)

  18. M Burke

    The first two photos are a good cross-eye stereo pair.

  19. Nice Image of the Shuttle docked at the ISS, but the AMS is on the Starboard side of the ISS, not the Port Side. For orientation, the Shuttle is at the front if the station with it’s tail pointing in the nadir direction. The highlighted object is an External Stowage Platform. The AMS is almost as visible on the opposite side.

  20. @ 17 Joseph

    There are hundreds of places online to get anaglyph glasses. But you should know that I’ve got some “quality” ones with plastic frames and lenses and some made of cardboard and cellophane. But the image from the cheap ones is actually better, with less ghosting, than the more expensive ones.

  21. 5. Tom Says: “The middle and right-hand images of the ISS and Shuttle make a VERY good cross-eyed view 3D image.”

    Thanks for pointing this out! It’s amazing how much more information you get when joining two images this way. In each image the tail end of the shuttle looks like featureless blobs, but in 3D you can make out the bulging contours of the OMS pods! (Those are the two nacelles on either side of the tail that house the maneuvering engines).

    Oh, BTW, Phil, that “dark vertical line on the Orbiter’s tail fin” is the rudder. It’s astounding that you can make out pieces of an aircraft from that distance!

    - Jack

  22. Don

    As always, the fact that he manages to perfectly nail it every damn time is amazing and unbelievable.

    Not to say that Theirry is not a good photographer, but it was mentioned that he did have to travel to three different countries to capture these images. I’m sure even Ansel Adams discarded quite a few glass plates in his time.

    BTW, an interesting tidbit I found on Wikipedia about Adams, his father bought him a telescope at an early age. His father was also the secretary-treasurer of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.

  23. WOW! :-D 8)

    That. Is. One. Superluminous. Photo. :-D

  24. Nic

    Oh wow, that is NICE.

  25. Tamara

    Embiggen is a perfectly cromulent word.

    Lovely pictures.

  26. Tamara

    Server hiccup. Apologies for the double comment

  27. M K Chandrasekhar

    Vvvvvvvowwwww!!!

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