Psychedelic space station stars and cities

By Phil Plait | May 14, 2012 11:01 am

The view from the International Space Station is always pretty cool, but when an astronaut points the camera at the Earth’s horizon and takes a series of short exposures, adding them together gives a view right out of Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s:

[Click to psilocybinate.]

Whoa, man!

Astronaut Don Petit took the pictures to make this composite. Basically, it’s a series of eighteen 30-second exposures added together so the motion of the ISS around the Earth makes the stars trail, the cities blur, and your mind expand, dude.

The brown and green glow over the horizon is the atmospheric aerosol layer; molecules that absorb sunlight during the day and release that energy at night. The red glow above that puzzles me; I’ve written about it before. It might be a reflection of lights from inside the space station, but I suspect it’s actually the aurora; it follows the curve of the Earth, and as you can see from the star trails the camera was pointed toward the poles — the direction you’re likely to see an aurora.

You can see faint star trails above the bright ones too, with a different center of curvature — those probably are from an internal reflection. Either that or the camera got moved, but that seems unlikely! Several people pointed out to me that the fainter trails above the stars are from the solar panels. I should’ve realized that myself!

This picture is one of several posted to Flickr, including this one which looks like it’s from the last scene of "2001: A Space Odyssey". But they’re all worth looking at, if only for their alien beauty.

After all, the photographer was literally high when he took them!

Image credit: NASA

Related Posts:

Space Station star trails
Southern lights greet ISS and Atlantis
ATV docks with the ISS (this is a must-see picture!)
Flying around the Earth


Comments (14)

  1. Loud

    “You can see faint star trails above the bright ones too, with a different center of curvature ‚ÄĒ those probably are from an internal reflection. Either that or the camera got moved, but that seems unlikely! ”

    Looks like the solar panels repositioned during the timelapse to me.

  2. beer case

    Entering wormhole..

    ..3 ..2 ..1

  3. Bob

    Dude…I can taste colors.

  4. Bandsaw

    I agree with Loud, the secondary set of star trails are actually from the stars behind the camera reflecting off the solar panels of the station, and the solar panels moved part way through the series. You can see it in the color and texture of those trails, and the straight edges that those sets of trails have. You can see it even better in the other picture you linked to. So you’re seeing stars circling both poles in the same view.

  5. Pete Jackson

    The bright star trail at 7-8 o’clock shows refraction from the Earth’s atmosphere very nicely as it intercepts the the horizon.

    Great picture. Thanks!

  6. SP

    I speculate a nonzero chance that there’s a couple sheets of good LSD aboard the ISS.

  7. Warren

    Loud is correct, the solar panels repositioned during these exposures creating the secondary trails from what little light was reflecting off them.
    I work in the Photo Operations Group at JSC and stacked these as well as the others that are appearing on Flickr. A lot of fun to work with and great to see them making the rounds!

  8. Actually I don’t believe we are looking towards any poles here, or at least not in the centre of the star trails. Expand your horizons, folks. I have 2 suggestions:

    1. A long exposure that’s taken from the ground will give curved star trails because Earth has carried you around part of it’s daily spin. Polaris won’t trail in that case because it’s perpendicular to the plane of your camera’s circular motion when on the ground. The ISS has its very own plane of circular motion around the Earth’s centre. So the point perpendicular to it will almost certainly NOT be the celestial pole. The trails, then, don’t reflect the Earth’s rotation at all, but the Space Station’s travel on a curved path.

    2. Nine minutes worth of exposure, in 30-second bites pointed at the celestial pole won’t give you star trails this long, unless you’re orbiting above Earth and precisely above the equator. Again, ISS probably wasn’t.

    So, the orange glow may not be an aurora after all. I understand the atmosphere is thicker near the equator? Anyone want to expand on that?

  9. Messier Tidy Upper

    Whooooooaaahhh!!! Duuuuude!! Wow! ūüėÄ

    Very pyschedelic alright! 8)

    Cheers Don Petit & BA. :-)

  10. Gary Ansorge

    Back in the ’90s (what little I can remember of it) a reporter asked a DeadHead what DeadHeads called those pretty girls who spun around in circles throughout the concert.

    The DeadHead Said “Wind babies…”

    DeadHeads are notorious for having a sarcastic sense of humor…and we’re not particularly fond of reporters…

    …but I’ll bet “wind babies” would have a fine time in free fall…

    Gary 7


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