Category Archives: Astronomy

ISS Pass – July 19th

Good planning.

I knew exactly where it was going to rise, where it was going to set, how high it was going to be. (Thanks, Heavens Above!)

I knew where the edge of the frame was. (Just past that honkin’ big tree, good landmark!)

I knew where to move the camera when it exited the frame so that I could see where it was going to go over the horizon to the northeast while being in the shadow of the telephone pole to block the light from that street light.

Check the focus.

It’s earlier and the sky’s brighter than it’s been the last couple of days, so go back to one second exposures instead of five seconds. Can I do two second exposures? Maybe, but don’t push your luck, stick with what has worked.

Trust the data.

Trust the plan.

I was ready.

Go ahead, click on that image and enlarge it! Look down there in the lower left corner where the first three or four dozen dots are almost lost in the coastal haze out over Malibu. Trust the data, indeed. There it is in the first frame, just peeking over the neighbor’s roof, exactly where I expected it to be! Then look up in that upper right corner, where on frame #6085 it’s just leaving the frame…

…and 24 seconds later, having moved the camera and lined it up, frame #6086 shows it coming into the frame here in the upper left! Nailed it!

One thing I wanted to see the picture for because it was really obvious to the eye – look at the bottom center where the ISS is just about to go over the horizon. See how throughout its path it’s about the same brightness, fading just a little as it got into the haze off toward Bakersfield? But just about there it got noticeably brighter for about 12 seconds? The data’s there. It happened.

My guess is that, being at the end of the daylight portion of the orbit, the big solar panels were maneuvering into position to pick up the sun coming around on the other side and in doing so they flared. Just my guess, but it fits.

The only downside tonight was that the focus was just a tiny little bit off. Not much, but enough to be a little annoying since almost everything else was perfect.

It’s been a great week for ISS passes here in LA!


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ISS Pass – July 18th

A “so-so” pass I believe is how I referred to it last night. Well, yes and no.

Yes — it didn’t get super high and bright. Which, I now know, means that it’s only about the same brightness as all of those 737’s and 777’s out there. Not quite “dim.”

No — now that I’m getting my act together and making sure that I focus correctly and got much better control of the manual settings of the camera, it still makes some nice pictures!

A lot going on here – the ISS is the trail from just to the left of below center, passing behind the top of the big tree, then up to the middle right. The other things are aircraft.

What I forgot was to trust my data and start shooting about 30 seconds before Heavens-Above said that the ISS would rise. I waited until I saw it. Trust your data!

These are five-second exposures since I wasn’t facing straight into the street light and it was well past dusk. A couple of cars rolled by while I was shooting, and their headlights (and brake lights, lower right) lit up those trees nicely. But even the mountain a mile away behind the palm trees (not burning tonight) is well lit. Of course, the other factor is shooting at f3.5 instead of f5.6.

Then it was time to shift the camera – yeah, I did a much better job of making sure I took pictures until the ISS was at the edge of the frame! But there’s a street light over there too…

But there’s also a telephone pole.

The ISS is the upper trail here, starting just to the left of the telephone pole in the middle, headed toward the lower left corner. Again, the other trails are aircraft headed into Burbank.

Getting there! Planning ahead, focus, proper camera settings… It’s almost going to be like I know what I’m doing!


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ISS Pass – July 17th

It’s the RTFM version tonight!

Good — found an online version of my Canon Digital Rebel XT (it’s like a dozen years old, still works like a champ!) and figured out how to manually set the lens aperature while simultaneously manually setting the exposure speed. (Yeah, if I had two brain cells to rub together I would have done this at least a decade ago, but we’re all stuck with the hands we’re dealt.)

So instead of being f5.6, these are all at f3.5, which lets in a lot more light! See how much more illuminated those trees are compared to last night?

(The ISS is the white streak in the lower left, headed toward the upper left. The other, more horizontal streaks are aircraft.)

Also good — I again knew exactly where the ISS was rising thanks to Heavens-Above and the compass built into my iPhone. As happened last night, if you click to get the full-sized image you can see the first image at the bottom is just barely after it clears the neighbor’s house, through a ton of coastal clouds and haze. Sweet!

Not so good — I believed that the ISS would come up and a bit to the right, like it did last night. Wrongo!! Up and to the left! Which was about to take it out of the frame, and even if that didn’t happen, into the glare from that stupid street light.

So I really had it set up for a long, long streak from the bottom to the top – time to change plans.

Going from the lower center to the upper left. I was in a hurry and at this angle it’s almost impossible to actually look through the viewfinder on the camera, so I couldn’t tell if I was aiming high enough to avoid the streetlight. (Narrator voice: “He was not.”) Still, this wasn’t bad. (Again, one second exposures at f3.5.)

And I guessed correctly on waiting until the ISS’s path hit the edge of the frame at the top! Oh, that thing going horizontally across the top? A Cessna droning off toward Camarillo.

Thanks to some pre-planning, I also had a very good idea exactly which direction the ISS would be setting, so swing the camera around and catch it going from the upper right to the lower left. The bright star just above the ISS path is Vega. A little bit better picture might have shown the ISS going right through the cross of Cygnus between Vega and the house.

Take aways today?

Better pre-planning, but need to have a better idea of the direction and inclination of rise and set. Just the compass point isn’t enough.

Much better camera set up with the lens wide open, but that also means that the focus has to be perfect. It didn’t totally suck, but it wasn’t good enough.

Looking at Heavens-Above for the rest of the week (and ignoring all of those nasty early AM passes!) there’s a so-so pass tomorrow night, a pretty good one (although not as good as tonight) on Friday, and then so-so passes on Saturday and Sunday when I’ll be otherwise occupied anyway.

See you then! One of these days I’m going to pull it all together and it’s going to be spectacular!


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ISS Pass – July 16th

Heads up North American peeps! It looks like another great week for ISS passes, both in the evenings and in the mornings. Most nights this week, both. (No, you will *NOT* be seeing any pictures from me at 04:00, no matter how great the pass is. Maybe when I’m retired and can count on a nice afternoon nap…)

(Images combined using StarStax)

The good – I absolutely nailed the positioning of the camera to catch the ISS coming up in the southwest. If you click to get the full-sized image and look down in the lower left corner you can see the station coming out from behind that tree with the first image in the stack. (I start snapping photos about 20-30 seconds before I expect to see the ISS – digital memory is cheap.)

I also like the two aircraft tracks along the bottom. Those are almost certainly jumbo jets coming into LAX from Asia. Their normal flight route has them coming down the Pacific coast until they get off of Malibu (to the left in this view) where they make a 90° left turn toward downtown LA on their downwind leg.

The bad – I still consistently underestimate the size of the field of view of the camera. The intent was to keep snapping photos until I was SURE that the ISS had passed out of the fixed field of view so that I would have a trail from one edge of the frame to the other. Obviously I stopped too soon, probably by 25-30 seconds. (These are one-second exposures.)

Also, it seems too dark. Yes, I know that I took pictures of a dark sky at night. Still, those palm trees that you can barely see are lit up by street lights and really should be more visible. Which makes me wonder if the lens was stopped down a little bit and I didn’t know it. Something to check for next time, which I think is tomorrow.

Passing almost straight overhead, again I badly misjudged how big the frame is. But just below the start of the trail (ISS was moving from left to right, SW to NE) you can see the Big Dipper hanging down.

Finally disappearing down behind the cypress trees, the ISS headed off toward Denver.

Bye! Until tomorrow night, or 04:17:44 this morning! (By which I mean “tomorrow night!!”)

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ISS Pass – June 07th

The last good pass of this cycle over SoCal – but tonight we get to see the moon!

Image from

Rising in the northwest again but this time swinging due west and then to the south, passing right by the moon at about 21:10:20!

Five second exposures, combined with StarStax.

That’s a nice photo. Enough twilight and house lights to illuminate the trees and hills along with a five day old moon that’s about 27% illuminated.

But as I’m thinking about what’s coming next, I realize that I need to make a quick change as I move the camera. I’m going to be shooting right above a street light that’s only about twenty feet away…

…I quickly switched to 2.5 second exposures so the frames wouldn’t be over exposed by that street light. (Station starting from middle right, west southwest, and going to the lower left, due south.)

But in the end, with the ISS heading toward the horizon in the south, the street light had to be dealt with directly.

I don’t want to get rid of the street light – I would just like to be able to turn it off for a few minutes now and then. I’ll remember to turn it back on when I’m done – promise!

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ISS Pass – June 05th

The skies cooperated!

Image from

Rising from about the same spot as last night, but instead of coming straight up toward the zenith, the ISS looped a little to the north, passing above the Little Dipper and below the Big Dipper, through Hercules (wouldn’t it be fantastic to get a picture of the globular cluster M13 with the ISS passing by?!), before finally heading toward the very bright and just rising Jupiter and disappearing into the Earth’s shadow.


I had originally set up in the back yard again tonight (for the lack of street lights) since the station was rising in a similar spot to last night. But I realized with about three minutes to go before it rose that after rising, the humongous tree in the back yard would block about 2/3 of the ISS’s path across the sky. So I quickly moved to the street by the driveway in the front yard. (I’m giving you the full resolution images tonight, so click to view full screen or download.)

ISS rose from the lower left and went between the Dippers, which you probably could have seen if not for the neighbor who stopped and had his brake lights on as he was wondering what I was doing… Pro tip – if you see someone in the dark with a camera and/or telescope pointed at the sky, try not to have a really freakin’ bright light with you.

The good news about being where I was in the front was that I knew that the telephone pole defined the right side of my field of view. So as soon as the ISS cleared it, I swung the camera around to catch another part of the long path across the sky.

You might note that these streaks are longer but fewer than last night’s – tonight I went with five-second exposures instead of one-second exposures, hoping that they wouldn’t be over exposed in the LA light pollution. With the moon just setting as the ISS came up, it worked! (Except of course for those brake lights.) Combining the exposures into one was again done with StarStax.

Before the ISS could get too far toward the horizon I swung the camera around one more time to catch it going down behind the trees and house. Also present to the east was the obligatory LA air traffic, in this case sounding like a Cessna 150 or a Piper.

Heavens-Above says there’s a so-so pass tomorrow night, but another pretty good one on Friday night. On the other hand, WunderGround says tomorrow will be nice and clear but Friday will probably be cloudy. Guys! Can we talk among ourselves and get on the same page?


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ISS Pass – June 4th

There have been some really great ISS passes over Los Angeles recently, but we’ve usually been clouded out. The one time it was clear I saw a fantastic pass, horizon to horizon – but I messed up the camera settings and got garbage.

Tonight the ISS was rising from a spot where I could easily see it from the back yard, and rising straight up instead of off at an angle. The back yard is MUCH darker than the front, with big areas where all of the street lights in the front are hidden behind the house and garage. So all I had to do was not screw up the camera settings!

(Image from

One second exposures (with a couple of gaps where I lost my rhythm) combined into a single image with StarStax software. You can see how it appeared orange as it came up, the light being filtered sideways through many hundreds of miles of atmosphere, then gradually getting brighter and whiter. The yellowish dot in the far lower right corner is a light on a transformer at the top of a power pole across the street. If you turn up the contrast and flip to view it as a photographic negative:

Now you can clearly see the cypress trees along the driveway on the left and the neighbor’s hedge along the fence at the bottom. It does make me wish I had aimed the camera just a little bit higher and then kept taking pictures just a little bit longer.

But I thought that the ISS had already passed out of the field of view. So I reset the tripod because I wanted to catch the end of the pass. As you can see from the Heavens-Above diagram, just about the time the ISS got to the zenith, 89° overhead, it “vanished,” passing into the Earth’s shadow.

I just caught the last few seconds as it faded. Blue, dimming rapidly to red and then dark. That happens when you’re travelling at 17,150 miles per hour. Sixteen times a day, along with sixteen magnificent sunrises a day.

Another good pass tomorrow, and another on Thursday. Let’s hope for clear skies!

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