Category Archives: Space

ISS Pass – August 06th

It’s been a few weeks, and while there have been some nice passes earlier this week, seems that this “adulting” thing has gotten out of control and I’ve had no time to “waste” on things like looking at the night sky.

I fixed that tonight.

The only question was whether I could remember all the lessons I taught myself again last month.

(Image from – why aren’t you using them?)

  • Prep and know where I’ll be looking (NE as the ISS is rising, almost due west as it sets, going past the bowl of the Big Dipper, past Lyra near the zenith)
  • Know in advance how big the frame is so I know when to switch to the next setup
  • Set the lens wide open (f 3.5)
  • Set the exposure length (5 seconds)
  • Set the focus
  • Lock the focus so the camera doesn’t try to auto-focus and ruin everything on the first shot
  • Start shooting early and finish late


(Images combined using StarStaX software.)

Like a boss! There’s the Big Dipper and while the view to the west is just a quarter shade too bright in five-second exposures, it’s not bad. The ISS came up out of that tree exactly where I thought it would. The Southwest Airlines 737 into Burbank on the other hand was not listed on

Timing was perfect. I “wasted” six pictures (30 seconds) before the first frame that showed the ISS and I shot only two pictures after the ISS departed the upper right corner of the frame.

Flip to the next position, take your time, set it up. Think for a second – is the ISS headed exactly where you thought it was going to go? Maybe make the tiniest of adjustments to the left. And….action!

Just about perfect! I shot two pictures prior to the ISS entering the upper left and two more after it had set in the lower right.

There were a few clouds down over Hollywood and downtown LA, but not enough to make a huge difference. Click on the picture to blow it up to full size (I’m giving you the full-sized, no-compression image, so use it!) and you can see that the ISS was fading into shadow on the last few frames.



Do you see the surprise bonus? That other track, going from the middle right (due south) to the upper left (due north) would be a polar satellite that I caught by accident!

I’ll take it. I might actually have this thing down.

Now to figure out how to do it with the camera mounted on my telescope mount tracking the stars – that would keep the stars from trailing. (The trees and ground will blur, but not the stars.)

Next goal!!

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Fifty Years

The family room at our home in Arlington Heights, a Chicago suburb. I had been watching all day, of course, and my dad was probably there off and on during the day since it was a Sunday, but he didn’t have the time to sit for a whole day and watch. But I remember watching the news coverage of the landing. Walter Cronkite.

By the time the moonwalk occurred it was night. We had all of the lights off with just the glow of the television to light the room. All of my brothers and sisters were there, sprawled all over the couch and floor, but I don’t know how many of them (if any) were paying any attention or cared what was happening. Not sure about Mom either, but Dad was as fascinated as I was.

At the time it seemed to last forever. Maybe it was that way for everyone in the world, or maybe it was just because I was thirteen. In seeing replays of it now it seems to be so short, just a couple of hours that changed the world.

I remember being amazed when the TV signal came down and we could actually watch as Armstrong came down the ladder and took those first steps. I remember being able to see Armstrong’s face in his helmet in the shadows as he read the plaque on the LEM’s leg. I remember when they took the camera and moved it out a ways and we could watch as Neil and Buzz bunny hopped around, setting up experiments and taking pictures.

Long after all of my brothers and sisters were asleep I watched until the broadcast was over and the astronauts were safely back aboard the LEM.

Over the last 50 years there have been many other spectaculars that I’ve watched. Apollo 13. For Apollo 17 I got permission to stay home from school to watch the last three moonwalks, each of which were over seven hours long. The first space shuttle mission. The robot landings on Mars.

For a couple decades there I would always watch with my kids. Now we watch separately, often from opposite sides of the planet.

But we always watch.

NASA’s been given orders to get us back on the moon in five years. I hope they do it, but I wouldn’t bet on it given today’s chaotic political situation. But SpaceX or Blue Origin or Bigelow might get it done.

When they do, I’ll be watching. I just hope it’s sooner rather than later. 50 years is too long to wait already.


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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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