Dragon hunting above, dragon hunting below

By Phil Plait | May 27, 2012 7:10 am

On May 23 — the day after the SpaceX Dragon capsule launch — International Space Station astronaut Andr√© Kuipers snapped this shot of the Earth:

[Click to ensmaugenate.]

Andr√© — who’s Dutch — put this up with the caption "Er zit een draak achter ons aan!" — "There’s a dragon after us!". That’s a funny pun, given the name of the capsule that was already on its way there.

But he didn’t say what this feature was! I wanted to find out, and wound up with a fun story.

Because I was curious, I first read the comments on the Flickr page for this picture. Flickr use PC101 said it was Lake Puarun in Peru seen at an oblique angle. I looked on Google maps, and there’s a decent resemblance. But it didn’t sit right with me. I couldn’t get enough landmarks to match up between the two photos, so I investigated a bit more.

Looking at the picture header, it says the photo was taken at 05:58 UTC on May 23, 2012. Wolfram Alpha shows that’s when ISS was over Australia, way too far around the Earth to see Peru. And the landscape around the lake is red, as you might expect from western Australia…

So I went back to Google maps, looked over Australia, and within about a minute found a suspicious-looking dry lake bed called Lake Rason. I zoomed in, and, well, here be dragon!

[Click to komodenate.]

I rotated this screenshot to more or less match the orientation of the one from the ISS, and clearly this is it. Funny, too: the "tail" is even longer than in the ISS picture, making it look even more like a serpent!

Now think about that. All I had to go on was a picture taken on board the space station and the time it was taken. I didn’t know what direction Andr√© took the shot, what magnification he used, or anything like that. All I had was the time he took the picture, and access to the internet… and a bit of experience knowing where to go to get more information.

And within a minute I had my answer! I could see plainly where and what this was. Interestingly, if the timing in the header is accurate and it was exactly 05:58 UTC, then the ISS was nearly directly over the lake when this picture was taken! You can see that for yourself: click here to see the map of the area where I’ve added an arrow to mark the position of the ISS at the time. The lake is in the middle, and looks upside-down.

Keep in mind, the ISS is screaming around the planet at 8 km/sec, so being off by a minute can mean a different of 500 kilometers. Incredible.

So there you go. Seek and ye shall find! And nicely, the Dragon spacecraft found the ISS just a day later, and made history. Andr√© has lots of pictures of that as well, which you can find on his Flickr page. Go check ’em out… and if you find something you don’t understand, why, now you know what to do.

Image credit: ESA/NASA; Google Maps

Related Posts:

A puzzling planet picture from the ISS
Followup: City lights from space
A dragon fight in the heart of Orion
Deflated Supermoon
Space Station star trails


Comments (26)

  1. Six

    Are you Batman?

  2. Daniel J. Andrews

    heh! Good sleuthing! I’ve done similar things with my pics taken from an airplane but at least I knew where I was and knew where to look afterwards. Even then, I sometimes had difficulty matching the photographed feature to the map. But you did it in less than a minute with a photograph from orbit with no knowledge of magnification or location—-I must bow before the master.

  3. Buxley

    Heh. “Komodenate.” <– I see what you did there! =)


  4. quarksparrow
  5. Lindsey

    Oh my lord. This is such a great post for teachers, between your BA inquiry skillz and Andre’s photo stream. Passing it on…

    Six: If he’s Batman, I’ve never seen the lair or the batmobile. Sad!

    – Bad Niece, Lindsey

  6. CR

    Thanks, Phil, for posting this, and for your nifty description about figuring it out… I showed my kids in an effort to show then how easy research can actually be. (It’s not like I won’t help them when they ask about stuff, but I always like to give them a starting point and then encourage them to look stuff up on their own. This post is a great example of what I’m driving at!)

  7. SBT

    And on a completely different tack, I must admit that in that picture I can see a black Triceratops standing on the dragon’s back. I notice from the wikipedia page for Dragon that the crewed variant which is planned to eventually carry astronauts is currently called ‘DragonRider’. Do you think they’d consider changing the name to ‘Triceratops’? ūüėČ

  8. Georg

    At first sight that “lake” was a glacier to me, or
    . not really-, a lake filled with foamy water.

  9. SkyGazer

    I just stumbled on this rare interview with Neil Armstrong on Australian TV.

    See it here:

  10. Muz

    LOL, good job Phil! That Wolfram Alpha is a fantastic tool.

  11. Tribeca Mike

    The producers of “Trollhunter” now have a superb plot point for a sequel.

  12. Thomas Siefert

    That’s right in my state! It shouldn’t take more than three or four days to drive out there…

  13. That’s right. Western Australia is bigger than Texas. Way bigger. Waaayyyy bigger.

  14. Steve

    Ain’t it amazing what the modern internet can do for us? We may not have flying cars, but we do have instantaneous info!

  15. Lukas

    Genuine question: How can you figure out where exactly the ISS was at a specific time?

    I know how to find out where it is right now, or when will be my next sighting opportunity (for example through heavens-above.com).

  16. JB of Brisbane

    @Georg #9 – Australia is a big, dry continent, and a lot of lakes dry out to a hard, white salty crust most of the year, or sometimes for years at a time between rains. Think of something like The Great Salt Lake or the Bonneville flats – or our own Lake Eyre.

  17. Nigel Depledge

    @ Lukas (16) –

    The BA said:

    Looking at the picture header, it says the photo was taken at 05:58 UTC on May 23, 2012. Wolfram Alpha shows that’s when ISS was over Australia . . .

    Does this answer your question? The BA included a link to Wolfram Alpha.

  18. Chris Winter


    That’s the first thing I thought of on seeing the image. But Falkor, the luck dragon from The Neverending Story, has a much different head.


  19. Unfortunately, flickr gave two different time zones for this pic. BST (British Summer Time) since Andre’s pix are posted from space via an ESA account, therefore the European section of flickr is used (which automatically assumes BST for any times without a specifically indicated time zone). The original time also is given in second place, but without time zone, so that you can only assume that it is (usually correct in the case of ISS pix) UTC.
    The photo has been posted by Andre, but not taken (“snapped” you say) by him. Cameras on the station are allocated to specific persons and Andre has a Nikon D3S while this photo was taken by a Nikon D2Xs. Even NASA says in the daily ISS status reports that Earth shots (some even give the targets) are taken by the Russian cosmonauts. Matching the camera details with previous shots taken by it tells me that the photo actually was taken by Commander Oleg Kononenko.

  20. MKS

    Don’t you love living in the future, Phil? :3


  21. Matt B.

    @18, Nigel: But where the heck is the header? When I ensmaugenate, there’s nothing that even hints at a date or time.

  22. mike burkhart

    Kind of reminds me of the Nazca lines, figures in the Nazca desert that can only be seen form the air. Some think that they are runways for ufos . Others think the Nacans may have had hot air baloons long before there invention by the Mongofery brothers in the 1700s ,and were able to direct the makeing of the figures from the air , the figures are thought to be the Nacan version of the Zodiac . However the figures were made it is quite a mystery.

  23. Lukas

    @18 Nigel, thanks! That’s exactly what I was looking for. I’ll read more carefully next time.


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