We celebrated the 20th anniversary of continuous human presence in the International Space Station (ISS) last November. What a huge milestone it is!
Most of us might not even know that the ISS can easily be observed by naked eye if we know where and when to look. It is one of the most staggering things to look at it quietly crossing the sky. Staggering fact is that in the past 20 years there were always a minimum of 2 brave humans on board the station. I always make sure I wave them!
For a photographer like myself the question almost immediately comes to mind – can I photograph it?
Luckily yes! It’s been the amateur astronomer community, who first started experimenting with how to snap a shot of the ISS. By the time I arrived at the ‘scene’, many talented photographers had already taken amazing photos. I have created Space Station Guys website purely to create a worldwide hub for amateur ISS photos, not only for mine but for anyone’s.
In the early days most of them used film cameras, but soon the digital age started and it all became somewhat easier. Camcorders, CCTV and even modified webcams took over – it might sound funny in 2021, but back then these were the only options for good quality digital photography. This article will feature staggering amateur photos and animations of the International Space Station and related missions from the past 20 years (all photos below are from Space Station Guys website). Some of these early photos show the ISS with only one pair of solar arrays, some with a Space Shuttle on approach or docked to it.
There are a few ways to accomplish your own photo. One of them is the manually tracked methods, which do not necessarily require motorised mounts or very expensive equipment. I could divide manual imaging into 3 categories. Remember this is the easiest and cheapest way to catch a shot of the ISS!
The first method only requires a digital camera and a wide angle lens. Long exposure shots are taken during an ISS flyby, usually between 20-30 seconds each. This will show the ISS as a bright long trail in our photo. This method is perfect for making compositions with amazing foregrounds. Important that the ISS is very bright, even being in a light-polluted city can’t stop you from capturing it!
The second method requires a telescope and a digital camera. This is the method used for most of the shots taken during construction of the ISS (2000-2010). I have seen so many amazing photos about the unfinished ISS with or without the Space Shuttle docked to it. I personally missed the Space Shuttle era, but many photos keep the memory of those very important years alive.
During this method we manually track the ISS, which means we use both our hands and physically move the telescope to follow the Space Station in the sky. Our finder scope and the main telescope needs to be accurately aligned, so whatever object we are pointing at with the finder scope, the same object must be visible on our camera screen too. People usually took a series of still photos during an ISS flyby, but as dslr cameras improved, the possibility of capturing videos opened up with an average frame rate of 20-25 fps.
The third method is the most recent one, it still requires a telescope, but instead of a digital camera we are using a so-called high frame rate planetary camera. The manual tracking method is exactly the same, but this way we gather between 50-200 frames per second – a whole lot of photos!
This allows us to maximise the success rate and if we are doing it right, even a cool animation can be put together, like the ones below.
Also let’s not forget the ISS transits! This is when the station appears in front of the Moon, Sun or a planet at a given time from a certain location. If you know where and what time to be, you can witness it and more importantly capture these very special moments.
There is also another method, the so called motorised tracking. As the name suggests instead of manually moving our scope, a clever and high precision mount does most of the tracking for us. It is a very cool way to photograph the ISS, larger scopes can be used and the results are clearly staggering. The downside is the financials, a capable mount and a large telescope can cost a leg and an arm.
Michael Tzukran, one of the prominent figures in this field describes the method:
“My equipment is an equatorial mount with a computer. I can send to the computer mount files that have in them all the information about the position of the satellites. And then when the time is right, I’m sending a command to the mount to track the satellite when it rises above horizon.”
But enough of the technicalities. Why is it so cool to take a photo of the ISS?
Well first of all this is for people who love challenges. The ISS travels at a speed of 27000 km/h approximately 400km above the surface of Earth. This is FAST and it means the ISS goes around Earth 16 times everyday, so the astronauts and cosmonauts see the Sun rising and setting 16 times a day!
Tracking the station is by far the most difficult challenge in the task, but when someone masters the technique of imaging and image processing, quite staggering details can be captured on the station.
Last but not least maybe the coolest aspect of this hobby is to capture historic events. I have the opportunity to photograph some really unique moments such as the first arrival of a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft to the ISS. Like a Soyuz MS-13 spacecraft with 3 humans on board approaching the station. Or a lunar transit which happened on my birthday – retweeted by former ISS commander Chris Hadfield. Also managed to photograph all the cargo spacecraft which are delivering the Space Station with vital and precious cargo supply on a regular basis.
It is very easy to observe the ISS by naked eye! Using an application like ISS Detector will tell when the next ISS flyby can be expected. It is amazing that the ISS has been constantly habited by humans since 2000. If you will see the ISS as a ‘bright star’ silently crossing the sky, it is worth remembering there are people up there doing incredible scientific work for the benefit of all mankind.
They are my superheros!