And I saw a star rising in... the WEST?

The entire universe in blog form
Sept. 12 2010 7:30 AM

And I saw a star rising in... the WEST?

Over the next few days, the International Space Station is making a series of excellent early evening passes over the western United States. I missed the one Friday night due to clouds, but Saturday (9/11) was perfectly clear.

With my off-the-shelf digital camera set to ISO 400, f/3.5, and using a 15 second exposure, I got a couple of very cool shots. Here it is rising in the northwest over my back yard:

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  


[Click to embiggen. You really should go see the biggest versions of these shots to appreciate them.]

The bright star in the center is the orange giant Arcturus, a star much like the Sun but already in its death throes. The Sun will look like Arcturus in about 6 billion more years... and bear in mind that while it was only about half as bright as the space station when I took that shot, Arcturus was about a trillion times farther away.

Boy howdy.

Here is another one I took a few seconds later, when the ISS was passing just to the south and east of the constellation of Corona Borealis:

Corona Borealis is the U-shaped curved series of a half dozen stars just to the right of the right-hand end of the ISS streak. Note that the streak is longer than in the first photo; this was nearly overhead and the ISS was much closer to me than when it was on the horizon, so in those same 15 seconds it moved a lot further across the sky.

At this point, it was brighter than Jupiter in the sky. But then something amazing happened: it blinked out! I was expecting that: when it gets to a certain part of the sky, it enters Earth's shadow. We see it fade out, but at that moment, from the astronauts point of view on board, they see the Sun setting behind the limb of the Earth. How cool is that? What surprised me was how quickly it faded; it couldn't have taken more than a second or two. Usually it takes longer than that, fading slowly and turning reddish as it plunges into the Earth's shadow.

I had a pair of binoculars with me, and while following the station was difficult -- it was hauling! -- I'm pretty sure I could see that it looked elongated to my eye. It's as big as a football field now, 100 meters across, and in binocs it should look extended when overhead. I can't be 100% sure I saw it that way, but I think so.

I stayed out a few more minutes just to use the binoculars and look at some old friends. I was able to spot the Dumbbell Nebula in Vulpecula, M13 in Hercules, and several star clusters and nebulae in Sagittarius. Just for grins, I took a 15 second shot of that last one:

You can see the teapot shape of Sagittarius right over my roof, and the fuzziness is the Milky Way galaxy itself: the combined light of billions of stars! I live in a mildly light-polluted area, so the sky is somewhat bright, but even so the Milky Way is easy to see in a short exposure. If you live with dark skies, then you can do a lot better than I can! Now is the time; get out there and observe!

And if you want to see the space station, and other satellites too, go to the Heavens Above website. Put in your latitude and longitude, and you're off! It really is just that easy.

Related posts:



Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

How Tattoo Parlors Became the Barber Shops of Hipster Neighborhoods

This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century

Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 1 2014 12:20 PM Don’t Expect Hong Kong’s Protests to Spread to the Mainland
Oct. 1 2014 2:16 PM Wall Street Tackles Chat Services, Shies Away From Diversity Issues 
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?