In addition to tomorrow night’s total lunar eclipse, tonight and tomorrow night there are really high, bright International Space Station passes in the evening over the US. Check on NASA’s “Spot The Station” website (free), or the Heavens Above website (free), or any of a dozen or more other websites, or get an app for your smartphone such as “Flyby” (my favorite, a bargain at $3, also available for Android).
For the SoCal region, tomorrow’s ISS flyby is at 19:03:32, rising in the SSW, maximum elevation of 67.7°, magnitude -3.8 (super bright!). It should be a balmy 74° F and clear tomorrow night, and I realize that the timing conflicts with the start of the first LA Kings hockey game of the season and we’ll be raising our banner for last year’s Stanley Cup Championship — but it’s a really great pass. Go out and see it, you can take your tablet or phone out to watch the Kings game while you look at the ISS go overhead.
(For later tomorrow night / Wednesday morning, for the full lunar eclipse, the weather’s predicted to be 63° and clear as a bell – let’s hope!)
Of course I was out with a camera tonight.
Fifteen-second exposure. The bright line at the upper left with red and white alternating dots is a jet leaving LAX. So is the one just above the horizone in the center, going through the leaves of our palm tree.
The ISS is just starting to rise. Look at the big tree in the lower right corner. There’s a notch in the branches at about the 10:00 position. You can see the ISS rising there.
I’m posting this picture in its full size for a reason. If you want to play along, click on the image, blow it up to full size, and see if you can see some of the other things that I was gobsmacked to see.
Hint: Look at the lower left, between the palm tree and the big airplane trail. Second Hint: It’s not a pterodactyl. I’ll spill the beans at the end of this article.
Twenty-six second exposure, the ISS is just clearing that big tree. I’m also drawing a crowd, neighbors walking their dogs and wondering what I’m looking at. They’re all interested, not just humoring the odd guy who lives in the middle of the block (that would be me, but you all knew that), so I’m trying to answer questions and do a running commentary while I keep shooting.
Sixteen second exposure. I would love to get a nice, long, ninety second exposure showing the ISS passing across half the sky — but this is the heart of the “world famous San Fernando Valley,” so any exposure that long would be so overexposed it would look like this one from June. You need a dark sky to do a long exposure like that.
Fifteen second exposure. The two bright spots are lens flares caused by the street light which was right over my head. Not much of a factor when I was aiming toward the horizon away from it, but now that I’m looking closer and closer to it, the flares start.
A thirty second exposure. See how much lighter the background sky is? Three times this exposure, six times the one above? Not going to work in this environment.
On the other hand, I’m loving the tripod setup and especially the new remote control trigger for the Canon DSLR. It eliminates almost all jitter caused by manually pushing the button on the camera, and for these pictures, it eliminates having to hold down the button for the entire length of the exposure, which introduces a lot of jitter, tripod or not. With the remote, you set the camera to “bulb” and hit the button on the remote and hold it for a second to start the exposure. From there, the camera will keep the shutter open until you hit the remote control button again, AND there’s a nice clock on the display on the camera back, letting you know how long the exposure is.
Sixteen second exposure. Heading down behind the trees on this side of the street. If I’m alone I would have grabbed the gear and sprinted back across the street and up a house or two. (After carefully looking both ways for traffic, of course.) From there I could have watched the ISS another couple of minutes as it headed out to the NNE, and possibly even seen it fade into darkness. But I had an audience of dogs (yes, when I came in, Jessie knew that I’d been petting Ozzie, seeing other dogs) and neighbors so that wasn’t practical.
Seventeen second exposure. (I need to remember that the Canon will do exposures up to about sixty seconds on its own, rather than having me guesstimate when to stop the exposure.) The trees are very brightly lit by the street lights in a long exposure, and the lens flares are winning.
I was still answering questions about whether my tripod was tracking the stars or the ISS, whether or not you could see the actual structure of the ISS with this gear, when’s the eclipse this week, will I have my telescopes out, will I have our telescopes out for Halloween… (No, it’s just a regular old tripod. Nope, you need at least a 16-inch telescope, a 20-inch or 24-inch would be better, and some really fantastic tracking software. Late, late tomorrow night or early, early Wednesday morning, 3:00 AM to 4:30 AM-ish. Yes, if I can wake up. Yes, unless it’s cloudy.)
Remember that first picture above, the fifteen second exposure in the light polluted soup that’s LA’s sky? I know what’s up in that part of the sky, but I had no idea that you would be able to see any of it. I was wrong.
Just to the right of that tree, just below the start of the big airliner trail, you can see the brightest stars in Sagittarius. It’s generally described as a “teapot” and in a dark sky, “boiling up” out of the “teapot” is a “cloud of steam,” which is actually the Milky Way. The region is full of bright nebulae and globular clusters, easy targets for even a small telescope. (NOTE: You’re not going to see anything that looks like this spectacular image of M8 and M20 with the naked eye, even with a huge telescope. It’s what many people expect since it’s what they see on the television and internet, buy you’ll just see a ton of stars and some whitish and greyish clouds of gas. Some other time we can get into why.)
In a dark sky, it can be spectacular. I fully expected it to be invisible from this location. But lo and behold, when I looked at the image, you can clearly see hazy spots of grey nebulosity where M8 (the Lagoon Nebula), M20 (Triffid Nebula), and M7 (Ptolemy’s Cluster) are.
Here’s an annotated image, showing the “teapot” and the different Messier objects that can be ever so vaguely seen.
I guess that’s why I should try these things instead of just assuming that I wouldn’t see anything. You know what they say about “assuming”…
Check your location, go out tomorrow night and see the ISS go over! (Then go watch the Kings.)