Shooting satellites, new and old

By Phil Plait | July 30, 2011 7:00 am

I’ve mentioned in the past that the International Space Station is easily visible to the unaided eye when it passes through the sky. That means it’s not hard to get pictures of it. Unless you have pretty fancy equipment you’ll only see it as a bright dot of light, but that’s still pretty cool, and worth a try.

This shot of the ISS is from a webcam at the Tellus Museum of Science in Georgia, which is part of the All Sky Fireball Network. That’s a collection of four cameras in the US southeast looking for bright meteors; the idea being that if one is caught by more than one camera the path can be calculated in three dimensions, and a location of any potential meteorite found.

The webcam shot of the ISS was happenstance, but inevitable; when you have a camera that looks up all the time it’ll get a shot of the space station eventually! But you don’t have to guess; go Heavens Above, enter your latitude and longitude (which you can get from Google Earth) and it will tell you just when interesting things will pass overhead.

With that knowledge beforehand, you can plan where to position yourself to get a picture. I’ve done it myself, and good shots aren’t hard at all.

On March 19, 2011, Ala’a H. Jawad and his nephew were photographing Orion, and didn’t notice they had something unusual until they looked at the pictures on the computer. You an see the result here: a streak left by a satellite, seen by accident. Ala’a looked it up, and discovered it was an Atlas Centaur booster launched on November 27, 1963! This was just days after JFK’s assassination, and only a couple of years after the U.S. put a man in space. But that booster is still up there, along with hundreds of other pieces of orbiting stuff you can photograph.

The point is, it’s not too hard to get pictures like these; you don’t need a telescope. Just preparation, a camera, and a tripod. So why not give it a shot?

Images credit: Tellus Science Museum. Tip o’ the lens cap to Joe Schulman and Ala’a H. Jawad; both used by permission.

Related posts:

Seriously jaw-dropping pictures of Endeavour and the ISS
And I saw a star rising in… the WEST?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (13)

  1. Chris P

    you don’t even need to enter your lat and long coordinates (unless you want to be super-accurate) you can just enter your country and town.
    don’t forget to look up iridium flares too, they’re very regular and really impressive.

  2. I have taken lots of shots of the ISS and even several of the ISS and shuttle either right before of after docking when they are two specs of light moving together.

    The last flight of Endeavor, I got them after shortly after undocking and you can even see a faint haze beneath Endeavor…I got it right when they were doing a water dump! Unfortunately, it was a very early morning shot and I didn’t have the camera settings quite right to really capture it well. You can see it, but I forgot to check all the settings. Hey, it was early…that’s my story and I am sticking with it!

  3. That booster is a treasure trove of captured high velocity atoms and ions after a half-century of orbit, data on erosion of surface coatings and compositions, plus isotope transmutation re cosmic rays. Priority should be assigned to recover it.

  4. Aaron

    A friend of mine once tried to record an exoplanet transit when a satellite zipped right in front of his target star! It was the -best photobomb ever-.

    I’ll ask him to send you the picture, Phil!

  5. Bill

    Heaven’s Above also has a very nice smart phone app available for iPhones and Androids. It integrates with your phone’s GPS and compass to make events very easy to anticipate. I’ve impressed the heck out of complete strangers by pointing out ISS passes and Iridium flares to random people who see me gazing upward and asking what I’m staring at.

  6. Sam H

    @3 Uncle Al: I’m impressed that we still have debris that big (larger than 8 meters long/wide) still up there in LEO after all this time!! We should send something to attach a small ion propulsion module or something to it so it can deorbit and burn up (since the debris is this big it should be easy to clean up), but what data on all that exterior decay help us with? Would it give us a greater understanding of cosmic radiation that could lead to better research on future spacecraft design, especially in the region of radiation shielding??

  7. Here’s the holy grail for this sort of satellite hunting:
    This puppy needs to be brought back & put in the National Air & Space Museum!

  8. Hey – Aaron (comment above) alerted me to this thread. Indeed, this past winter, I was measuring the brightness over time of the exoplanet XO-2 b as it was traveling in front of its star (on a particularly bad night of seeing).

    This satellite hit an entire solar system!

    Picture here:

  9. lqd

    Thanks Phil, and even bigger thanks to Heavens Above—I just saw my first Iridium Flare! It was Iridium 59, and it was -7 magnitude. I was 6.5 km from the flare center.

  10. WJM

    @Bill, I’ve done that to random strangers, too!

  11. So if one sees an object, to which website can he refer the next day to determine what it was?


  12. Coda

    @Bill – Thanks for the tip about the app–I just finished installing it, and can’t wait to put it to use!

  13. Just FYI, there is more than one “all sky network”. The four camera network you cited is the NASA fireball camera network…see which is under development by Dr. Bill Cooke at MSFC-MEO Huntsville, AL. Another much more extensive network is the Sandia Sentinel Fireball Camera Network/North American All Sky Camera Database which currently has more than 100 cameras deployed and continues to expand worldwide…See Those cams are currently being hubbed by a New Mexico State University project…see Regular postings of events captured by both networks, and other events reported by the public can be found at my site
    Jim Gamble


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