Reflecting on the ISS

By Phil Plait | October 17, 2011 10:12 am

Randy Halverson is an astrophotographer who takes gorgeous pictures of the sky and puts them together into amazing time lapse videos (see Related Posts below for links to his work). On Google+ this morning he posted a picture he took last night, and it’s simply stunning: the International Space Station rising into the Milky Way, with both reflected on a lake’s still waters:

[Click to embiggen.]

What a fantastic shot! I’ve tried getting similar pictures, but never managed to get one as nice as this. It takes dark skies; Randy was about 300 km west of Sioux Falls, South Dakota when he took it, where there’s almost no light pollution. The Milky Way is obvious; you can see the bulge of the central region of the galaxy, and the disk tapering off to the top of the frame. Pictures like this are always a good reminder that we live in the mid-plane of a big spiral galaxy.

When Randy got this shot the ISS was rising over the southwestern horizon. 100 meters across, 380 km up, and moving at 8 km/sec, the station reflects a lot of sunlight and moves rapidly enough to create a bright streak in short time exposures… and bright enough to create a strong reflection in the water.

A funny thing: as I looked over the picture, I saw a faint streak not too far from the ISS. You can see it in the picture I’ve included here; I’ve increased the brightness and contrast to make it more obvious, and point it out with arrows. Given how faint it was, and the direction of the streak, I guessed it was a polar-orbiting satellite — most satellites orbit roughly west-east around the Earth, but many orbit north/south. These are usually satellites that survey the Earth for one reason or another; they point down, toward the ground, and can observe the whole planet over a few orbits as the Earth rotates underneath them.

I asked Randy, and he told me the time and location where he shot the picture. Using that info, I went to and found that the most likely candidate is a Russian rocket booster called an SL-8, commonly used to launch satellites into polar orbits. The brightness, location, and direction all match pretty well.

I like this shot for a lot of reasons — not the least of which is that it’s really pretty — but one of them is that it proves that you never know what you might see when you go outside and simply look up. I wish everyone who’s able would take a few minutes every now and again and do that. Even if you live in a city you can see the Moon, or Jupiter (currently rising in the east at sunset and up all night), or any number of other interesting sights. Even man-made satellites as they circle our world.

Go outside and look up. There’s a whole sky out there.

Image credit: Randy Halverson, used by permission. See more of his work at his website,

Related posts:

A meteor’s lingering tale
Another jaw-dropping time lapse video: Tempest
Gorgeous Milky Way time lapse
Stunning winter sky timelapse video: Sub Zero

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (15)

Links to this Post

  1. ISS and Milky Way with 3 cameras | February 21, 2012
  1. Randy,

    Heavens-Above is a great site not only for identification of things seen but also of coming events. For example, checking the Iridium flare 7 day forecast, I found out that there were going to be two flares, a -6 and -8 magnitude from one of my regular viewing sites. Not only that, but they were within a degree of each other and no more than 45 seconds apart. A good chance for a long term exposure capturing two flares in one shot. With that long an exposure I’d likely have some nice star trails as well.

    That night it rained.

    That’s Mother Nature for you.

  2. Compare the lengths of the streaks. The booster is really hauling, ah, mass.

  3. What was the apparent magnitude of ISS , can we see in naked eye ?

  4. S.J. Esposito

    Beautiful shot. Every time I see something like this, I can’t help but marvel at the fact that we put things in space. Seeing a man-made satellite near a giant galaxy really puts things in perspective.

  5. D Hunt

    You can definitely see the ISS, it’s one of the brightest things in the sky after the sun and moon.

    You must have cybernetic eyes to have spotted that faint streak. I had to zoom way in on the embiggenned image and refer to your enhanced image before I could spot it.

  6. Graham Molyneux

    Hi Neil #3
    Yes, the ISS is easily visible with the naked eye; given the right conditions.
    Clear skies, obviously. It also needs to be dark but with the ISS still being illuminated by the sun, so just after sunset or just before sunrise satisfy those conditions.
    With the naked eye it could be mistaken for an airliner but decent binoculars will show the structure of the station and its solar panels.
    There are a number of web-sites which give forecasts of “flybyes”.

  7. I take satellite trail photos of the ISS as well sometimes. Satellites are so common, I have frequently seen other satellites in the same field of view.

    Now I want to get one reflecting off the water! Living in Tucson, will have to do that when I travel sometime. Not many lakes around here.

  8. John Sandlin

    @D HUNT #5, I really had trouble with it at 100% size too. I had to ramp it up to over 150% size to see the streak. Once seen you can imagine you can still see it back down to 100%. I think my eyes are just getting old.


  9. Chris

    Sometimes I just lay down on the hood of the car, let my eyes adjust to the dark and on a good night you can see probably half a dozen to a dozen satellites pass over every hour. Best times are a few hours after sunset. It’s amazing how much stuff we put up there.

  10. Calvin

    Yes, the Moon and Jupiter have been putting on quite a show between 6 and 7:15 AM MDT the last week or so.

  11. Wow! Superluminous (Beyond just brilliant) astrophoto. :-)

    Love the reflected starlight – and “brick moon” light – effect.

    Thanks Randy Halverson & BA for this. :-)

    @4. S.J. Esposito : “Seeing a man-made satellite near a giant galaxy really puts things in perspective.”

    That’s not just *a* giant galaxy, that’s *our* (actually large~ish but not so much “giant”) Milky Way Galaxy! But then you knew that already, right? ūüėČ

    You’re spot on about astronomy putting things into perspective there.

  12. Butch70

    Astronomy is a fastinang subject. You bet.

  13. @3. The brightness of the ISS varies since its quite a bit farther away when its on the horizon than when its straight overhead, but it can actually get brighter than Sirius. I live in a relatively brightly lit suburb and I’ve seen the ISS numerous times. The rocket booster, however, was probably down near magnitude 4 or 5 level, barely visible to the naked eye.

  14. Although I’ve gone out of my way to watch a few ISS passes, it was a bit more exciting to “discover” it last night by accident, when an after-dinner walk luckily coincided with a beautiful overhead pass at magnitude -3. I stood there delighted and mouth agape, then ran home to confirm my catch on Heavens Above. There really is nothing else in the sky that looks like it. Very cool.

    Reminded me a bit of when I was a teenager and stumbled upon a partial lunar eclipse I hadn’t heard about in advance. I just saw a crescent Moon rising in the East one evening, thought “wait a second,” and got a little shiver down my spine…


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