The Hunter, the station, and the southern lights

By Phil Plait | September 15, 2011 3:59 pm

Astronaut Ron Garan has been on board the International Space Station since April 2011. Tonight, at midnight Eastern (US) time, he will land back on Earth with two of his crewmates.

While on the ISS he took a huge number of breath-taking photos of the Earth. One of the very last he shot was this amazing scene:

[Click to embiggen.]

That stunning view shows the Earth, of course, with part of the space station itself hanging off to the right. But what steals the scene are the aurora australis — aka the southern lights — and half of the constellation Orion of to the left. You can easily see the three belt stars, but I have to admit they looked funny to me. It took me a second to figure this out…

If the header info in the picture is accurate, it was taken at 18:48 UTC on September 14, 2011. According to Wolfram Alpha, the ISS was off the coast of Antarctica at the time, and that fits with seeing the aurorae. At that time, Orion would be setting in the west. That makes sense; the aurorae would be to the south, so west would appear to be to the left in this picture. [CORRECTION: As noted in the comments, I was wrong here. First, west would be to the right, not the left — I was thinking upside-down, ironically. Second, checking some sky maps, Orion was neither rising nor setting at that time. I think the camera timestamp may be off. But east is to the left, so I’m assuming Orion was rising (again, apparently oreinted upside-down to what I’m used to) in this picture. If the timestamp was off by only 8 minutes, and the picture was actually taken at 18:56, then the ISS would’ve been off the coast of southwestern Australia, and Orion would’ve been in the position seen in this picture. Thanks to Steve in the comments for pointing out the directions were off in my original description.]

… which explains why Orion looked funny. From the southern hemisphere, Orion appears upside to me! I first thought those two stars at the bottom were Rigel and Saiph, Orion’s knees, but in reality they’re Betelgeuse and Bellatrix, Orion’s armpits! I remember the first time I saw Orion from Australia, and it freaked me out. Seeing a familiar constellation upside-down is pretty disconcerting to an astronomer.

Of course, to Ron, nothing would have been upside-down. He was in space when he took this shot, so there is no up or down. Unless you count towards Earth being down… and in that case, that’s where he’s headed. As I write this, the hatch to the Soyuz TMA-21 capsule is already closed, and in a few hours it will undock, bringing the three astronauts back to the Earth.

The good news is that, if an October 30th Soyuz unmanned flight launches as planned, three more astronauts will head up the space station on November 12. This comes after much angst the past few weeks over that rocket, but the Russian space agency says the problem has been solved. I hope so. NASA is facing a lot of troubling times right now, so a successful launch by the Russians would go a long way toward taking some of the pressure off.

Related posts:

Soyuz rocket flaw found?
NASA ponders de-crewing the space station in November
Moon over Afghanistan
What a falling star looks like from space

Image credit:NASA

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, NASA, Pretty pictures
MORE ABOUT: aurora, ISS, Orion, Ron Garan, Soyuz

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