Category Archives: Space

ISS Pass, April 12th

Again there were some clouds, but having learned a couple of lessons yesterday…

Being later and darker, I went back to longer exposures. These are all five second shots, again combined with StarStaX 0.70. Part of the allure to tonight’s pass was the way it was going to be going right past Orion, which is clearly visible just to the left of center.

FYI, the stars aren’t misaligned or smeared because the tripod moved – they’re trailing because the planet moves! Over the course of these twenty-two exposures in 2:02 the tripod was reasonably still, the ISS rose in the lower right and headed toward the upper left, one of those 737s headed into Burbank crossed the upper right corner, and the planet I was standing on was rotating so that it appears that the western horizon in front of me is rising up to meet Orion. (Conversely we could think that we’re standing still and Orion is “setting” in the west, sinking down toward that horizon, but why be conventional?) If you blow the image way up, you’ll see that each of the bright start trails is also really 22 little lots in a line.

Having gone overhead up past Orion (and I notice that I once again bailed about three exposures too soon before moving the camera) I swung the camera off to the south and got in five more pictures before the ISS disappeared behind the coastal clouds.

Practice makes perfect. Now, if I just had some really dark skies I could try some really interesting stuff. I might have to leave Los Angeles behind to find those dark skies, though.


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ISS Passes, April 10th & 11th

It’s that time of year when orbital mechanics and equatorial tilt align to give SoCal a whole week or two of really spectacular ISS passes in the evening. Naturally, despite the time pressure and borderline panic involved with packing and moving out, I’m out taking pictures. And starting to learn a bit more about how to do it better each time.

Yesterday, April 10th, there was one of the best passes I’ve seen in a couple of years. Rising out of the northwest headed straight toward (almost) the zenith, being chased by a Southwest Air 737 going into Burbank. (Four-second exposures, combined using StarStax 0.70.)

Lesson to learn – keep the tripod steady. That’s why the stars are doubled up and there’s that little jog in the ISS’ path.

A single frame as ISS passed nearly overhead with that 737 having finally caught up. Again, you can see that there was vibration in the camera due to the tripod not being secure. The rest of the photos in this sequence were worse, so there was little point in stacking them.

But the best of all, a picture I truly love! Just three frames, four seconds each, but you can see the ISS crossing into night above us. Throughout all of these pictures it’s been nice and dark here on the ground, but the ISS, 250 miles up, has been in bright sunlight. This makes it easy to see, but eventually it will go into the Earth’s shadow, or as we techie folks call it, “night.”

Looking at those frames (go ahead, click on the photo, blow it up nice and big on your monitor) you can see that not only does the ISS image get dimmer but it also turns red and orange as it quickly flies through the “sunset” rays of the setting sun. It’s just like our sunsets on the ground, but much faster.

Tonight (April 11th) there were a couple of new issues. Some I can control, some I can’t.

First of all, obviously, were the high clouds. Nothing to be done about that. But the other big issue is the earlier hour. This pass was over an hour earlier in the evening than yesterdays, so the sky was much brighter. I had to adjust.

Because of the whole moving thing I was short on time and just took a WAG (Wild Ass Guess) on the exposure. If the dark sky exposures were four seconds, maybe one second would work?

Well, not a terrible WAG, but next time I might want to go down to 3/4 second or even 1/2 second. In this image you can see the ISS, but the contrast between it and the background sky is much less distinct. (And I was up at the park instead of in my front yard, so the setup time on the tripod was even shorter and obviously less successful.)

Once out of the worst of the haze down near the horizon the contrast got better. The other thing you notice with shooting and stacking a series of one second photos vs a series of four second photos is that the gap in between the images is a MUCH higher percentage of the total time. It looks like the reaction time to shoot the next photo is almost a second itself. In addition, pushing the button manually like that causes even more vibration – next time I’ll use the remote.

The other issue with hitting the button on the camera manually is that it’s easy to get out of sync and miss your timing, leaving a big gap in the sequence.

Heading back toward the eastern horizon, ISS again disappeared into heavier haze and muck.

The other thing that’s truly notable in looking at the four images side-by-side is how much darker it got in the five minutes or so between the start of the sequence and the end. I wouldn’t have thought in advance that it would be so noticeable.

Despite the so-so outcome of the images, the pass itself was lovely to watch with the naked eye.

Remember, to see the ISS in your sky (it’s really simple, you just need to know when and where to look) go to one of the NASA sites that can tell you, or better yet, go to Remember to put your exact location in the box on the upper right to make sure you’re seeing passes and maps displayed for your location.

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After we had a reminder that we live in earthquake country the other day I was talking online with someone about the experience of living through a big earthquake and how the worst part for me was the aftershocks.

I hate aftershocks.

The absolute worst were not the ones five minutes, five hours, five days after the big shaker. It was the ones five months and twenty-five months later, usually just about when you suddenly thought to yourself, “Hey, self, it’s been a while since we had an aftershock or an earthquake!” Just when you thought you were safe. Just when you thought that your life could get back to normal.

It has often occurred to me that there are similar patterns (which I hate similarly) to other monumental events in life.

For example, many years ago when we were visiting Montreal, our rental car was broken into. Among other things stolen were my briefcase with an assortment of documents, credit cars, my checkbook, and so on.

I got a new rental car, got back to Vermont, wasted some vacation time in the local library (mom’s house didn’t have internet) cancelling accounts and getting new credit cards sent and so on. It was a pain in the ass (much like a major earthquake) but in a day or two I thought we were back to normal.


Once I thought I was safe, once I thought things were back to normal, the “aftershocks” started. I go looking for some document or piece of camera equipment or credit card or something – only to realize it had been in that stolen briefcase and now not only wasn’t there when I needed it, but that I had yet another mess to clean up. It got gradually better with time, but it was a pain.

I think of this tonight because I suddenly recognized that it’s happening again. This time the “major life changing event” isn’t an earthquake or a theft, but the fact that we’re selling our house and into full pack and panic (not necessarily in that order) mode.

Over on FaceBook and Twitter there are starting to be postings about the best places in the Lompoc, CA area to see the Insight launch in four weeks. Insight will be launching from Vandenberg AFB about three hours north of Los Angeles, headed to Mars.

I would love to see that launch. It’s currently scheduled for a Saturday and because of that, unless the launch date slips, I’ve got it penciled into my brain as a day to spend three hours driving north to watch a rocket launch for five minutes and being 10,000% worth it.

Better yet, there’s a NASA Social for the launch. A three-day long NASA Social, including up-close VIP seating for the launch itself. I’m not sure how I would get the Thursday and Friday off work (*cough* maybe I’m coming down with something already?) but I would figure out something. So I applied a couple weeks ago, and for the first time in several years I didn’t get turned down outright. (I’m not complaining, I’ve been to five NASA Socials and figure they’re spreading the wealth around.) I didn’t get an invite, but I did get put on the wait list in case one of the primary invitees can’t make it. That’s got me very excited!


We’re in escrow and have months worth of work to do in the next fifty or so days. I get home from work, usually at 19:00 or 20:00 or later at this time of year (audits, tax returns) and now I’m up until midnight every freaking day packing and panicking, while also trying to squeeze in the occasional minute or two of CAF work. And I’ve got a five day trip to Toronto to squeeze in there as well.

Barring a literal “act of God” there is no way I can afford to take a whole Saturday off to go see the launch, and that’s a zillion times more true about the idea of taking a full three days off for the NASA Social.

Just when I thought I was safe. Just when I thought there might be the tiniest sliver of normalcy to be found in the chaos…


There will be more. They may keep getting bigger and/or more frequent.

I hate aftershocks.

Now if you’ll pardon me, it’s only 23:40. I have at least two or three more boxes to pack tonight before I can go to sleep.



Filed under Castle Willett, Disasters, Space

ISS Pass, March 25th

It’s been a while since I did one of these, partially because the orbital mechanics haven’t lined up for evening ISS passes for a while over Southern California, partially because when they did it’s been cloudy, and partially because I haven’t had a whole lot of spare time available for any of this.

Tonight it was mostly clear, there was a nice pass, and I made time.

Again, using StarStax, a very nice freeware program, to combine multiple short exposures. I could do 30 to 60 second exposures, but with the light pollution they would be all washed out and way too bright to show the ISS trail. Instead, I take a whole series of much shorter exposures (these are all 3 seconds), firing the next shot off as soon as each one is done.

To track when an ISS pass is coming up (or other satellites) I use Heavens-Above, a wonderful website. (You should as well!) Here’s their map which you can match to the photos – rising in the west at the right, headed up toward the top left:


There she is! Coming up from the horizon in the west at the lower left, heading up through some passing clouds. Again, each “dash” is a three-second exposure.

One thing I need to work on is what the field of view is for the camera. These images could have fit into the previous field of view, but I thought that it might be moving out to the right, so I shifted the camera.

Another happy result from stacking the photos is the way it brings out the stars, even with the street lights and light pollution. The Pleiades cluster is just above the ISS’s track in the middle left, above the lens flare from the street light.

Of course, above LA there’s more than just the ISS moving overhead. Here the ISS was just above its apex and starting to sink back down toward the north-northeast. In the lower right of the photo you can see the distinctive “red-green-red-green-red-green-red-green-red-green-WHITE” pattern of an aircraft.

Moving almost due north, from our front yard we have another street light to deal with, and another plane way off to the north just starting to come up over the horizon.

And there she goes! Wave to the six astronauts and cosmonauts on board, Expedition 55! Check out the free available apps from NASA, ESA, and others, as well as sites like Heavens Above! Know when the ISS is coming over your area in the evening (or morning, if you’re one of those people) and see it for yourself!


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Someplace Special – March 13th

Southampton, England

“We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the Universe. That makes us something very special.” – Dr. Stephen Hawking

(People like me can understand how light diffracts through rain drops suspended in the air and can do the math to describe it. Well, I could at one point long ago. Stephen Hawking could understand how black holes warp the fabric of spacetime enough to radiate away energy and eventually evaporate – and do the math to prove it RIP, Dr. Hawking.)

(Read this thread to find out more about Hawking radiation in easy to understand terms.)

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They Went! Congratulations!

It’s been said about rocket launches that when you get to 0:00:00 on the clock there are a million things that can happen and only one of them is good.

Especially on a first test flight, we knew SpaceX was going to be cautious, and the weather is one of the things they can’t control. But they had a two-hour long window today and they waited out some high-level wind shear issues.

DAMN was it worth it!

This is the full stream of the launch (which occurs at the 22:00 mark), fairing separation (exposing Elon Musk’s Tesla roadster to space at 25:56), and the landing of the two side boosters (at the 30:00 mark).

If you think the video is spectacular…

That one in the lower right might be THE iconic picture of the year.

And this view from the beach:

The video of “Starman” (the mannequin in the space suit in the Tesla Roadster) kept going for over four and a half hours with the Earth getting a bit smaller with every view:

Congratulations, SpaceX!

Now, when do I get to go?


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Go SpaceX! Go Falcon Heavy!

Tomorrow SpaceX will attempt to launch the first Falcon Heavy, which will be the biggest currently flying launch vehicle. The Saturn V was bigger, as was the Space Shuttle – but they’re not flying any more. (Don’t get me started…)

You can watch it online – I might have to have some “executive time” about then to go sit in the car and scream a lot. (It freaks out the office mates.)

What’s SpaceX been up to recently, besides this?

Last week they launched a satellite. Normally these days the recover the first stage booster, but this time they weren’t going to try because the barge they use to land on out in the mid-Atlantic Ocean needed to be used to land one of the three boosters on the Falcon Heavy launch.

Oh, did I forget to mention that they’re going to try to land ALL THREE BOOSTERS from the Falcon Heavy launch tomorrow?

Anyway, because of that they decided to not land the booster last week from the satellite launch. But not ones to waste an opportunity, they experimented with the “landing” anyway. Normally the landing is done by re-lighting one of the nine engines. But what happens if that engine doesn’t re-light correctly? You’re falling like an arrow at a couple thousand miles an hour and you have only seconds before you make a smoking hole.

Maybe you could make up for the delay and the extra speed and the fewer extra seconds by, say, lighting three of the other engines and really freakin’ stomping on the brakes? It’s a high-G maneuver and timing is critical, but on paper it works.

So why not try it when there’s nothing to lose? This booster’s going to be tossed away one way or the other, right? Let’s get the data and fly that profile and have it “land” on the ocean’s surface (no barge) and if we can make it non-violent enough to work if you’re forced to use that method as a backup when there IS a landing spot under you, be it a chunk of Florida coastline or a robot barge.

It landed so gently that it simply tipped over and floated on the surface of the ocean. (Makes sense. If it didn’t crack open it’s 99% empty fuel tanks that that point.)

Even when these folks are deliberately trying to “fail” to get the test data, they still do shit that the rest of us can’t even dream of trying.

Good luck tomorrow, SpaceX! I’ve got an alarm set to try to sneak out of the office.

Give ’em hell.

I’ll be the guy screaming in his car down on the bottom level of the garage.


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