ISS and Atlantis seen in broad daylight!

By Phil Plait | July 18, 2011 6:32 am

This is pretty amazing: on Sunday, July 17, amateur astronomer Scott Ferguson was able to get video of the Orbiter Atlantis docked to the International Space Station when they passed overhead in broad daylight!

How cool is that?

This looks legit to me. This video was taken about 1.25 hours after the Sun rose! Atlantis is the glowing white object at the top of the ISS. You can clearly see the solar panels on the station, and get a hint of other structures too. The two dark donuts are dust motes on the camera detector; they are out of focus and optical effects make them look like rings — you see these a lot in astrophotography, but they’re generally not noticed because the background is dark. In this case, the morning sky makes them more obvious.

Ferguson used a 20 cm (8 inch) telescope and a video camera optimized for astrophotography. He also used software that predicted the position and path of the two orbiting spacecraft; though the ISS can get about as bright as Venus, it’s very hard to see during the day, so having a solid prediction was critical. He used guiding software which he had to assist by hand, which is remarkable. As he told me, he was hoping to get a night-time pass, but there weren’t any at his location. Rather than give up, he saw an early morning pass, so gave it a shot… and wound up with this astonishing footage.

It’s funny to think of how much detail you can see, but when it passes overhead the ISS is only 350 km (210 miles) or so above you (and even when it’s halfway up the sky it’s only about 150 km farther away). And since it’s 100 meters across, it actually can be easily resolved by binoculars! You won’t see much, but it will clearly be an extended object, and not just a dot. Through a telescope, well, you can see that for yourself.

This is quite an accomplishment, and I’m glad someone was able to do it in the final days of the Orbiter’s mission. I was actually hoping we’d see something spectacular from this last hurrah, and yeah, I think this qualifies.


Related posts:

Seriously jaw-dropping pictures of Endeavour and the ISS
Discovery spacewalk seen from the ground!
Discovery’s last moment in the Sun
Atlantis goes head over heels

Comments (39)

  1. Cheyenne

    It’s getting really pathetic that we’re continuing to gut the actually productive unmanned missions in favor of the ISS. Goodbye LISA, goodbye Webb – we need to keep stuffing people into the unproductive and basically useless ISS instead.

    Just for kicks I clicked on the “International Space Station” tag and scanned through the associated Bad Astronomy blog posts. Anybody want to guess at how many had anything to do with science and actual exploration? The ISS is only useful for cool photos.

    Oh well. Is what it is I ‘spose. Kind of a shame to think of everything we could have learned about the universe if we would have made better choices.

  2. Questioning Mind

    Yes, very cool, but where was Scott when he got this vid?

  3. Questioning Mind

    RE: Cheyenne and “unproductive and basically useless ISS”.

    Are you for real, or just a Monday AM Troll?

  4. Now, we gotta get this guy working on the UFO problem. With this technology everything will become an IFO in no time.

  5. smitty

    Take that, Thierry Legault!

  6. Monkey Hybrid

    @Cheyenne – I think you vastly under-estimate the true value of the ISS and it’s accomplishments. It does much more than producing cool photos – that’s just an added bonus!

    Lots of valuable science is done on the ISS. Some of it may appear mundane compared to the more exciting inter-planetary and lander / rover projects but valuable none the less and in my opinion, probably more directly applicable to mankind’s life on Earth at this very moment (drug research, etc). Check out NASA’s list of ISS experiments: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/experiments_category.html

    But for me, the special thing about the ISS is what it says about mankind. For nearly 11 years it has been home to astronauts, from all over the world, with individuals living safely in that relatively confined space for up to a year at a time (at the extreme), in LEO. That’s pretty amazing. We’ll need everything we’ve learned on the ISS if we’re ever to send humans on long-term inter-planetary missions.

    I am deeply disappointed about projects like JWST losing their funding though. That sucks.

  7. Dennis

    That was really cool!
    I’m curious what the magnification factor of that image is.
    Also wondering how fast that was moving across the sky, from the perspective of the observer.

    It would be really amazing if there were a man-made object in orbit that could be seen with the naked eye. Weren’t the French or someone planning to do something like that awhile back? IIRC, it was like a giant ring of mylar balloons or something.

  8. Martin

    Cheyenne,

    Maybe an astronomy site is not the best source for developments on the ISS, which is as much about science as it is about space.

    http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/experiments_by_date.html – That may give some more idea of what is going on.

    And can I just say – Dude, there are people LIVING IN SPACE! (Maybe i’m, just easily impressed)

  9. josie

    Thanks for that Phil!

    @Cheyenne–who is this “we” you speak of? are you American? or European? perhaps Canadian or Japanese? Those are all different budgets most of which have zero to do with NASA’s other efforts.

    As others have said the merits of the ISS (I is for INTERNATIONAL btw) stand on their own

    The cut in NASAs budget for the JWST was only for the telescope…it’s not like it gets to go anywhere else in space exploration. It’s just gone. Complain about a real problem, there are plenty.

  10. Wow! That IS impressive! I like how you see him correct the exposure and struggle to keep the ISS in frame; underscores the difficulty of getting images like this!

    @hybrid monkey: couldn’t agree more!

  11. *WOOT*

    Way to go!

    @#2, Scott lives in Florida.

  12. Trebuchet

    @Dennis, #7: There are MANY manmade objects in orbit visible with the naked eye. That’s at night, of course. Just go out most any clear evening a little after sunset and look up for an hour or so — you’re bound to see at least one satellite. Daytime is, of course, a little more difficult!

    As for how fast, it’s not terribly quick. You can see just how by looking up an ISS pass in your neighborhood (heavensabove.com is usually suggested as a good place to start) and watching it yourself. A very good pass can take as much as five or six minutes from near one horizon to near the other.

  13. That’s incredible! Kudos to that guy.

  14. merbrat

    Fantastic!

    @Dennis, #7 If I remember right, it was a giant banana. (yes)
    I’m at work so I don’t have access to the link I bookmarked years ago.
    (may not have been France, but someone else.)

  15. Charr

    Don’t feed the…

    Ahhh, nevermind.

  16. Gary Ansorge

    COoool!(Ok, actually, it’s probably around 250 degrees C in full sunlight).

    Gary 7

  17. ksis3

    wow! i watch it pass overhead whenever i can (thanx heavens-above!) and i always wave. jeez. maybe they CAN see me after all!

  18. Dennis

    @Trebuchet – thanks, I actually did mean during the day, and close enough and/or large enough to appear as more than just a point of light.

    I have seen satellites pass overhead at night quite a few times, and once was even able to identify one (don’t remember if I used heavensabove.com or another site) as an Iridium satellite.

  19. Cheyenne

    #3- “Troll”? Naw. Those of us that think NASA should refocus their efforts to having a greater emphasis on science and exploration like to be referred to as “human spaceflight deniers”.

  20. WJM

    I actually see more than a mere “dot” with the naked eye during ISS evening passes. I can’t quite resolve the details, but there is a certain shapeyness to the ISS that isn’t there with bright planets.

  21. Anchor

    Cheyenne #1 is right. By “basically useless”, (s)he means it doesn’t actually go anywhere and is little more than a manned platform in orbit. It doesn’t perform any space or earth-observation science that could not be conducted by unmanned satellites (the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer notwithstanding) EXCEPT how the human body responds to long-duration spaceflight and some particular biology or chemistry experiments better attended to by human hands (even though most of those experiment packages are already highly automated). Its principle functions have been to establish international cooperation and to develop the techniques of large-scale construction and maintenance in orbit. Its construction even became the main purpose of the Shuttle in its declining years. In short, the basic purpose of the ISS is the ISS.

    At the end of the day, now that we’ve finished assembling it, it has almost no dedicated capacity and facility that pioneer space visionaries in the 1950’s and ’60s outlined for what constitutes a proper role for a “space station”, as a general spacecraft assembly and maintenance facility and fuel depot that supports both manned and unmanned missions to the Moon and targets elsewhere in the Solar System. A “SPACE STATION” was thought of as a long-range cost-saving stepping stone to parts beyond, a base-camp to more easily reach the summit.

    Unfortunately, the ISS’ high-inclination orbit makes any such trips to the Moon and out toward the ecliptic excessively fuel-intensive. Ironically, the ISS’ orbital inclination could in principle have been gradually aligned with the ecliptic plane with the use of an ion thruster module which could have adjusted its orbital plane in as little as a few years, but an ion thruster might have severely interfered with the AMS experiment. Even if the ISS ever IS aligned with the ecliptic, it would still need to be outfitted with the facilities devoted to what we used to think space stations were good for.

    So why is it in the “wrong” orbit? Because Russia’s launch facilities are located at high-latitude. So ISS mission planners and designers went with that fact of life and came up with a “station” that isn’t even really a station. It’s more like a dress rehearsal for a dress rehearsal.

    But nobody can say that a space station designed to support potential lunar and exploratory missions to the rest of the Solar System would have been incapable of doing everything the ISS is good for and potentially so much more, except maybe not allowing astronauts to get oft motion-blurred photos of high-latitude regions and aurora displays with hand-held cameras aimed out the Cupola.

    Yes, of course the broad-daylight vid is definitely cool. I can attest to what Phil says – a few months ago as the Sun rose one morning I watched the ISS in my 11×80 binoculars – a very definite extended box-shaped object that reminded me of a tiny box-kite. The brightness of the sky definitely helped soften the otherwise harsh contrast level that makes it considerably harder to see detail in that brilliantly lit beacon against a dark sky. And, absolutely, it IS awesome to think of all that hardware sailing overhead as a clear line-of-sight demonstration of what we can accomplish…

    No, that’s not nearly good enough.

  22. Chris A.

    Cheyenne’s point, while provocative, is not wholly inaccurate. Compared to other accomplishments, NASA doesn’t do a particularly good job of getting the word out on what science is being accomplished on ISS, thus the perception in some quarters that it is a boondoggle.

  23. Ray

    “dust motes”, Phil? Really? We know those are Arcturan cruisers sent to observe Earth. Why are you hiding the truth? Who is paying you? Big Astronomy?

  24. Erik

    Do you know if they’re planning on leaving any of the orbiters intact? I saw a picture of one of them that had had parts removed in prep for a museum, and it just… well, it made me sad.

  25. Paul Parkinson

    Have you heard from Thierry Legault, the wunderkind of ISS/SS photography? I was hoping he woudl have something special on this last trip! Fingers crossed!

  26. Do you know if they’re planning on leaving any of the orbiters intact? I saw a picture of one of them that had had parts removed in prep for a museum, and it just… well, it made me sad.
    ——
    That IS intact, for all intents and purposes. The main engines, OMS pods, RCS thrusters, and other parts were designed to be removable for servicing. They also contain some pretty toxic chemicals, so they definitely won’t be left “intact” for museum displays.

  27. DennyMo

    I’m bummed: last week, HeavensAbove indicated I’d have night-time passes of the ISS and shuttle this week, now it looks like all the passes are day-time. The most-nearly-dark pass I get is ~0630 on the 20th, guess I’ll give it a go…

  28. Das Boese

    @Cheyenne

    Actually, you’re continuing to gut the actually productive unmanned missions in favor of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion Multipurpose Crew Module (MPCV), which really are a continuation of the failed Constellation Program started under your previous president.
    A 130-ton super heavy lift rocket that does not have any payloads to fly on it and a crew capsule that is both redundant for LEO/ISS access (which can be provided at a much lower price by commercial contractors) and ill-suited for actual deep space missions such as visits to an asteroid or Mars.

    The James Webb Space Telescope is not in danger of cancellation because of ISS, but because it is years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget. The cancellation of the project is supposed to set an example that this kind of thing will not be tolerated in the future, and although I do not agree with this line of reasoning or course of action, it’s clear that something has to happen.

    As for science and exploration-relevant aspects of the ISS, perhaps you should have looked beyond a single blog by an astronomer? A good place to start educating yourself is wikipedia:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_research_on_the_ISS
    Or you can start on NASA’s ISS Research and Technology page:
    http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/index.html

    A lot could have been done differently with the ISS. It could have been cheaper, or bigger. But it’s what we’ve got now, it’s essentially complete save for the Russian Lab module and it’s paid for until at least 2020. There’s much left to learn if we ever want to explore beyond Earth orbit and eventually expand human presence into the solar system, and the station is where we’re gonna do that. In addition to that, it offers a unique opportunity to kickstart low-cost commercial spaceflight which essential to all kinds of space exploration.

    If you get angry, get angry at the right things. And get your facts straight.

  29. Chelsea

    Chris wrote: “Compared to other accomplishments, NASA doesn’t do a particularly good job of getting the word out on what science is being accomplished on ISS, thus the perception in some quarters that it is a boondoggle.” I think in this case NASA really flushed a huge PR opportunity right down the toilet. Not many people have the capability of Mr. Ferguson to track down the ISS/Atlantis during the day. Even SpaceWeather carried the comment “To the dismay of sky watchers in Europe and North America, space shuttle Atlantis has not appeared very often in the night sky during the ongoing final mission of NASA’s shuttle program.” Here we have this historic last mission, and we couldn’t see it!!! What the h***?! In this age of crashing economics and cutbacks, you’d think some egghead at NASA would want to put on a show and gain public support. Even on this blog there have been appeals for people to write to their politicians in support of various space programs or projects. How many people would have liked to have looked up at the night sky, watched the shiny light come overhead, and say “Hey, I saw the last flight”, and come away with a better appreciation of scientific efforts. *sigh* The ball was BADLY dropped on this one.

  30. Anyone have just a pic, or is there another source for the video? Youtube is unfortunately blocked here in the People’s Republic of Paranoia (China).

  31. Allen

    “Just for kicks I clicked on the “International Space Station” tag and scanned through the associated Bad Astronomy blog posts. Anybody want to guess at how many had anything to do with science and actual exploration? The ISS is only useful for cool photos.”

    Astronomers tend to be highly interested in cool photos and image analysis, since a lot of astronomy is basically data acquisition and image analysis. The ISS is a very useful target for near earth observation, because it is big and bright. It’s no wonder you find a lot of imagery posts for it.

    Was there any post-processing done on this? That’s a very crisp image for an 8 inch telescope. But the tracker control loop needs a kalman filter to eat that jitter…

  32. Messier Tidy Upper

    Y’know what’d be a cool idea – one of those time lapse videos showing the International Space Station moving across the sky – at nightand in daytime too.

    Been too cloudy here to observe the ISS passes overhead alas. :-(

    As for the anti-human spaceflight trolls – its NOT zero-sum. We can and should explore both in person and via robot proxies.

  33. Messier Tidy Upper

    @6. Monkey Hybrid :

    @Cheyenne – I think you vastly under-estimate the true value of the ISS and it’s accomplishments. It does much more than producing cool photos – that’s just an added bonus! Lots of valuable science is done on the ISS. Some of it may appear mundane compared to the more exciting inter-planetary and lander / rover projects but valuable none the less and in my opinion, probably more directly applicable to mankind’s life on Earth at this very moment (drug research, etc). Check out NASA’s list of ISS experiments: [Link snipped to avoid moderation delay.]
    But for me, the special thing about the ISS is what it says about mankind. For nearly 11 years it has been home to astronauts, from all over the world, with individuals living safely in that relatively confined space for up to a year at a time (at the extreme), in LEO. That’s pretty amazing. We’ll need everything we’ve learned on the ISS if we’re ever to send humans on long-term inter-planetary missions. I am deeply disappointed about projects like JWST losing their funding though. That sucks.

    Well said and seconded by me. :-)

    I find the small-mindedness and lack of imagination and vision of the anti-human spaceflight people sad and think it’s totally wrong. I disagree completely with their mean view that humans cannot expand into space and travel to other worlds, build other homes for ourselves in orbit like the ISS too, and instead agree completely with those like Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov and Stephen Hawking who take the opposite perspective.

    I think human space exploration is our greatest achievement as a species and our best hope for the future.

    *****

    “Many people have asked me why I am taking this flight. I am doing it for many reasons. First of all, I believe that life on Earth is at an ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster such as sudden nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus, or other dangers. I think the human race has no future if it doesn’t go into space. I therefore want to encourage public interest in space.”
    – Stephen Hawking, 8th January 2007 – interviewed before taking a zero-gravity flight.

  34. Patrick

    James Webb Space Telescope is on the chopping block, but its not yet canceled, here’s to hoping that the JWST makes it through all the budget cuts, and even if it takes a few more years to accomplish, we get that successor to hubble we are all hoping for. Cause if not, the US is truely done in space. Hubble is the only thing over the past few years that has kept us a leader in the Space Sciences, and JWST was set to make it all the better, we got maybe two or three more years with Hubble before it is just a dead hunk of junk in orbit, with no missions ever planned to repair again. Hubbles last reapair was only set to last until the James Webb was up and running, so we have our new scope, so we can truely shut down our old one. Congress, please, DO NOT CANCEL THE JWST!

  35. marlete

    @Cheyenne
    ISS stand for International Space Station, not for US Space Station :P
    If you wish to continue your “unmanned” mission, just tell Goldmansacks to sponsor you from the $ 700 bilions

  36. Russ

    Our space program was gutted by the usual scumbags. You know – the walking, talking cash registers. The dark-age’rs. The ZOG. It really began just after they murdered JFK. He – the President that changed our course from the same old, same old. The slobbering greedy that had us under their thumbs. They – who produced the ‘robber-barons’ and the gilded age.. right on into the ‘roaring twenties’. Then they did just what they are doing now. And we went into the ‘great depression’. The World War (2) that launched America back into the $$$ was followed by what was intended to be a resumption of the ‘same old, same old’. BUT ! Ike was no fool. He was stiffed by these greedy scum. They derailed Ike’s peace plan with Kruschev. Detente. They – the CIA, sent the U-2 out JUST before the big meeting.. And, natch it wrecked the entire plan ! So, when JFK was elected, Ike clued him in on the ‘Military-Industrial-Media-Religion-Complex. There is so much back story ! But, you (some) can remember enough to sort of connect the dots.. anyway, there are, indeed, reasons why America is scuttled. Many.. many reasons. I cannot write a dissertation here !

    Look to AIPAC. That is a beginning. We, who once were an interplanetary society – have been sucked dry. By ??? Look to AIPAC !!!

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