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

Comments (27)

  1. steveM

    ” That makes sense; the aurorae would be to the south, so west would appear to be to the left in this picture.”

    Wait? If facing South, West would be to the right, not the left.

  2. Chris

    “He was in space when he took this shot, so there is no up or down”

    Nonsense. The enemy’s gate is always down.

  3. vince charles

    And Gary Ansorge wins a prize!

    37. Gary Ansorge Said:
    August 30th, 2011 at 6:18 pm

    “Much ado about nothing. This is standard safety procedure. Just de-crewing the ISS for a few months is no big deal. I’ll bet the Russians will find and fix their problem within the next two weeks.”

    Those of us in the rocket racket see all too well that Russian technicians leave things in the stages. Off the top of my head, I remember metal particles dooming one launch; I seem to remember technicians leaving rags or tools in another. And then there was the Proton, earlier this year, doomed when the launch staff loaded it with too much fuel.

  4. larch

    Phil, whenever I see these photos which demonstrate the relatively thinness of our atmosphere, I want to use them to help visually explain that a very tiny change of the composition of the air we live in can be substantial, as in CO2 and methane increases, can easily have a profound effect to such small strata of air.

  5. Didn’t catch that, Steve! Yeah, I remember Orion rising “upside-down” in the East as well from the Karoo. Starry Night confirms!

  6. Phillip


    You win the internet today. Awesome comment.

  7. Noel

    I’d like to think I can see some fuzziness where the orion nebula is supposed to be.

  8. VinceRN

    Isn’t “toward the earth” pretty much the definition of down?

  9. Craig

    Pffft. You say upside down, I say right way up.

    I wonder how different is is to the see the stars with no scintillation.

  10. Joseph G

    Hours? They have to stuff themselves, in pressure suits, into the Soyuz capsule, and sit there for hours before even undocking from the station??

    Jeez, and I thought waiting in business class on the tarmac for 45 minutes was bad!
    Seriously, I wonder what the reasoning is? I’m sure it only takes one person to prep and pre-flight the capsule. And seeing as how that’s their lifeboat in case anything goes wrong, I would hope it doesn’t take too long.

  11. @ ^ Joseph G : I dare say they would move things along much quicker in a real emergency if they had to!

    Nice image – although Betelgeux doesn’t look red enough compared to how I’m used to seeing in it in the South Aussie sky. :-)

    It also reminds me of the image in an earlier BA blog post – click on my name for link to it or cut’n’paste :

    ‘Southern lights greet ISS and Atlantis’

    into the search box – posted on the BA blog 2011 July the 18th at 10:30 AM.

  12. Diederick

    “Orion’s armpits”

    Thanks for clearing that up. I always thought they were his shoulders :-)

  13. SkyGazer

    Phew. And then to think it´s just a day at the office for them.

  14. vince charles

    10. Joseph G Said:
    September 15th, 2011 at 10:47 pm

    “Hours? They have to stuff themselves, in pressure suits, into the Soyuz capsule, and sit there for hours before even undocking from the station?? …Seriously, I wonder what the reasoning is?”

    Air pressure, and the bends. The Soyuz dates to the ’60s, and like pretty much all capsules, doesn’t hold air at 14.7 psi. It’s much less, to keep down the weight of the pressure vessels. In the separation procedure, the crew must first verify a seal against the ISS, which is at a higher pressure than the Soyuz. Only after that can they depressurize; depressurization is slow, to allow prebreathing and prevent decompression sickness (“the bends”).

    They take this procedure (and other reentry needs) very seriously, considering the last three Soyuz deaths (Soyuz 11) occurred due to station separation. Needless to say, no one wants to be the next three Soyuz deaths, and I don’t blame them.

  15. DrBB

    @Chris: second vote for winning the thread, and possibly the internets as a whole with that comment.
    @Vince: Great answer! That’s why I love coming to this site. Never would have thought of that, but of course–the bends!

  16. lunchstealer

    “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.”

    The enemy’s gate is always down.

  17. Joseph G

    Weird – it double posted on me

  18. Joseph G

    @14 Vince: Ahh, thanks for the answer. I forgot all about Soyuz 11, and about depressurizing before an EVA (though this isn’t like an EVA, I’m guessing) That makes sense, though I’m trying to figure out how they avoid pressurizing the Soyuz to 14.7 if it’s not built for it, and they’re depressurizing inside it?
    Regarding Soyuz 11, they didn’t have room inside for 3 cosmonauts in pressure suits, so they went without. IIRC, they went to two cosmonauts per mission (with suits) after that, until a redesign in the 80s which made room for three people in suits.

    Ooh, maybe it’s for the pressure suits? In case of a catastrophic pressure loss, it’s less traumatic to go from, say, half a standard atmosphere to zero (apparently there’s still a pressure drop inside the suit due to stretching and inflation, hence the problem with ‘the bends’). That’s one reason why astronauts on the shuttle had a period of depressurization prior to an EVA (well, that and the fact that lower pressures make the EVA suits more flexible).

  19. Joseph G

    Grr effing tablet browser! Half a dozen browsers out there for Android devices, and all of ’em suck in one way or another.
    Anyway, I have tried to read up on this stuff, as when I was a kid I loved space but was terrified of sci-fi movies portraying people exploding like microwaved sausages in a vacuum.
    I still wouldn’t want to try taking a walk out an airlock without a suit, but thankfully the reality isn’t quite that bad (apparently it’s even survivable if you can get pressure back within about 30 seconds, and you’ve got medical help waiting).

  20. vince charles

    Ooops, the Soyuz actually pressurizes to 14.7 psi as standard. I was recalling the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project when I posted above. There, the Soyuz was running lower pressures as a mission modification, but later flights returned to 1 atm.

    Still, enough incidents have happened on Soyuz separation and reentry that they don’t take chances. These include Cold War incidents that weren’t admitted until the ’90s and are still obscure today. Some of the weirder anomalies are almost comical as long as they aren’t happening to you.

  21. Joseph G

    @20 vince charles: Dang, you’re not kidding!
    I started reading about other early Soyuz missions, and came across Soyuz 5. It’s incredible the cosmonaut survived. It reads like something out of a movie. Whatever the Russian equivalent of “The Right Stuff” is :)

  22. icemith

    Does anybody remember a Sci Fi novel, probably 1950s vintage, (cannot recall name, author or other details – didn’t leave much to go on, did I?), where the inhabitants of one space craft, due to some emergency, had to transfer to another craft, sans space suits! The powers that be at the time, declared that if one could float over through space to that very close spaceship, whilst holding a breath, all would be OK. Obviously this was the understanding of the author reflecting the then current thinking, and made it a point in the novel. That it involved civilians, and mixed at that, indicated an advanced space technology.

    It seems to have been in the vicinity of Mars, as I’m sure a later scene involved another mixed group who had to suffer the cold night in the open on the surface of Mars, and they survived by going “underground”, ie, covering themselves with a layer of soil, after removing certain apparel and staying warm by very close contact!

    I think the author was rather advanced at the time, and a movie would have been problematic if it had been considered. How things have changed!


    PS, as an impressionable young teenager, (before the term was invented), I wonder why I remember at least those details!

  23. Joseph G

    @22 Icesmith: Sorry, that one doesn’t ring a bell, but I love reading old sci-fi and would be interested in the author if you ever figure it out.
    The closest thing I can recall is a book from the early 70s (I think) about an accident with the (at that point still unbuilt) space shuttle. In it, the shuttle was to be carried to near-orbit by a hypersonic mothership – sort of an SR-71 on steroids. The story has an explosion aboard the mothership which would cause it to be destroyed if it descended back into the atmospere, so the shuttle hauls it up into a low earth orbit insteadof detaching. The book involves all sorts of Apollo 13-ish engineering kludges that are used to keep the pilots of the launch plane alive and get them transferred to the shuttle. No breath-holding, though :)

    It’s strange, isnt it – I remember some details of some books that I read like 20 years ago, and I can’t remember the plot of a book I read two months ago 😛

  24. icemith

    Thanks Joseph, for your recall of old Sci Fi novels.

    No, I did not catch your remembered (?) story, with at least more detail than I could remember of the novel, among others borrowed from the local Library, in the mid 50s.

    Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Edger Rice Burroughs, (hmmm, I wonder…), even Arthur C. Clarke, though I think he was not really popular till later, so I could be mistaken there, are some of the authors I respected at that time in my life, and education. Those books, and Popular Mechanics, and Popular Science were favorites.

    It will be interesting to be able to compare my recollections with the actual plots, etc, over 55 years ago and different attitudes and developments, to those as are present today.


  25. Joseph G

    @icemith: Sorry about that, didn’t mean to butcher your name earlier.

    But shoot, Ray Bradbury is still my favorite author, and I can’t really see that changing :)

  26. Now, there is a scene in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey where, as I recall, Dave Bowman, the remaining living crewman on the ship is required to transfer from a shuttle to the main ship by manually opening the outer airlock door and getting blown across from the shuttle.
    By the by….IMHO perhaps the best SF flick EVER done….

  27. Yes, these are troubling times. Kids are already getting sick and maybe dying out there because of these irresponsible antivax people.

    Let’s see what the Lord has to say at the gates of heaven when Michelle Bachman comes knocking. Maybe he’ll say, “Oh, sorry, you don’t have the right vaccinations. Please step to the end of the line…”


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