Space station offers new target

Amateur astronomers are taking up a new observing challenge – the International Space Station. Despite its distance of more than 220 miles, some are capturing detailed images of the orbiting outpost.

ISS and shuttle by Martin LewisA fine example, taken only this week from the UK using a webcam, shows the space shuttle Atlantis attached and the vast solar panels that provide power to the station, currently home to ten astronauts.

It was recorded by process engineer Martin Lewis, from his back garden in St Albans, Hertfordshire. He used a 222mm (8-in) reflecting telescope that he built himself, on a Dobsonian altazimuth mount. The webcam was a DMK21AF04AS mono camera capable of 60 uncompressed frames per second at a resolution of 640 x 480 pixels.

By chance, the current shuttle mission has coincided with a period when the space station flies directly over the UK and Ireland for a few nights in the early evening.

It takes around five minutes to cross the whole sky, appearing to the naked eye as a brilliant light in the sky.

Martin, who added a 2x barlow lens and Luminance filter, told Skymania: “I set up my telescope in my back garden, got my webcam focused and aligned with the cross-wires of the low power finder and waited for the ISS to appear at the predicted time in the west.

“When I saw it rise over the rooftops, I hit the record button and tried my best to keep the finder crosswires centred on the ISS. I managed to push it to follow the space station for most of the track across the sky but because it’s moving so fast, I only got a few hundred good frames.

“When I later viewed the video, I saw the shot attached which clearly shows the distinctive outline of the shuttle docked on the front of the space station. I was really pleased as I’d wanted to get this shot with the two spacecraft together for ages.”

The space station is now a brilliant object, easily visible without any optical aid, and it can be captured with an ordinary camera capable of a time exposure. You can find out when it passes over your part of the world at the Heavens Above website.

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Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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