Hunting the International Space Station

ISS on June 7th, 2017

During this past week I made an effort to track and photograph the International Space Station.  First, on the night of June 5th, I waited for it with my binoculars at the scheduled time for my location.  It did appear in my sky at the appointed time, going from NNW to E.  It was bright and of course moved quickly.  The binoculars did not reveal any additional details that I could not already see with my eyes alone (in other words, nothing).

Now trusting the Interweb’s timekeeping for the ISS and having a general idea of where to look for it relative to coordinates, two nights later I set up my camera on tripod to take what pictures I could.  Because the ISS is so fast, I had to leave my alt-azimuth tripod knobs loose.  This was not too big a deal, as I was able to typically get three to four pictures with my IR remote before the station moved out of view.

In reading NASA’s recommended camera setup for photographing the ISS, I immediately knew my long 300mm lens was about half their suggestion.  They essentially say you need a nice long telegraphic lens.  Still, I was undeterred.  Of the images I took in those brief three minutes, the above I consider the best.  This is a highly magnified section of the original, taken at f/8, 1/1000 seconds, and ISO 3200.

On Sunday night yesterday, I attempted more pictures during the ISS’s even longer four-minute flyby.  But all of these were either blurry or at a bad angle, as all I got were blobs.

To see something really interesting about the ISS, I recommend checking out Jim R’s cool capture of the ISS transiting the Sun.

Thanking the Planets for Scientific Advancement

If it were not for the planets, where would civilization be today?  For one, I doubt I would have this computer, and the electricity to power it.  The people of this alternative 21st century would be waiting at least several hundred years more for those amenities.

The classical planets of the Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are the exceptions in the sky.  (And did you just notice that there are seven of them?  Think of the days of the week.)  There are clouds too, but for our ancestors those were easy to explain as both the chores and whims of the gods.  The stars are fixed, as far as the unaided can see.  But those crazy planets break the rules, making the geocentric universe difficult to explain.

(Uranus was out there too, but likely went unnoticed until Sir William Herschel came along as nothing but an insignificant, dim star, moving too slowly for anyone to appreciate.)

The Sun and Moon are fairly easy as well.  Though they wobble in the sky throughout the year, nothing is perfect, right?  The point being their motions are very easy to predict, day after day, month after month, and year after year.

Then there are the visible planets, the real planets of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.  If not for these, there may never have been any questioning of the order of our solar system, or our place in it.  Scientific advancements took off, in the context of the arc of history, once people accepted that the Earth revolved around the Sun.  For if we did not have these planetary exceptions in the sky, would there ever have been the intellectual curiosity to question?

The planets, unlike the “fixed” stars, offer these problems to explaining the geocentric model (i.e. Earth being at the center of the universe):

  • There is a difference in behaviors between the two inner planets and the three outer planets.  Whereas Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn at least appear follow the elliptic path of the Sun, Venus and Mercury are constantly zigging and zagging in proximity to the Sun.  Mercury quickly bounces from dusk to dawn.  Venus sometimes climbs really high in the sky, yet also falls back into Mercury-like behavior.
  • The planets speed up and slow down.
  • Sometimes, the planets start moving in the opposite direction of everything else (retrograde motion).
  • Mars is a very curious case by itself, since at times it will shine as brightly as Venus and at others be dimmer than Saturn.

Copernicus was the first to publish the notion that the planets revolve around the Sun.  Later, Kepler devised his laws of planetary motion, which explain all of the conditions listed above.  Still later, Newton came long, basing his general laws of gravity and motion on Kepler’s earlier work (and Kepler’s laws turned out to be a special case of Newton’s general gravitational laws).  Newton’s work in this and related areas was the genesis of our modern scientific knowledge.

If there were no planets, there would have been no questioning of the Earth’s status relative to the Sun.  If that questioning never happened, we would have never had a true reference as to our place in the universe, making fundamental questions on physics difficult to comprehend.  I don’t doubt that eventually we would have come around to figuring these things out, only that it would have taken far longer if not for the guidance of the planets.

So here’s to you, Mercury, for your quickness.

Here’s to you, Venus, for your brightness.

Here’s to you, Sun, for keeping the lights on when we need them.

Here’s to you, Moon, for all of your cool phases.

Here’s to you, Mars, for being the most famous red beacon in the sky.

Here’s to you, Jupiter, for your steadfastness.

And here’s to you, Saturn, for the delight you reveal through our telescopes.

No, Mr. President, the Skies of Detroit and Nebraska Are Not the Same


“And whether a child is born in the urban sprawl of Detroit or the windswept plains of Nebraska, they look up at the same night sky, they fill their heart with the same dreams and they are infused with the breath of life by the same Almighty Creator.”

– Donald Trump’s Inaugural Address, January 20th, 2017

If only this were true, Mr. President.

The night sky in the city of Detroit is far different from the night sky in the state of Nebraska.

The child of the plains will likely have a wonderful view of the universe on clear evenings.  He will wonder, and dream, and imagine.  He will think about his place in the cosmos.  He will ponder both philosophical and spiritual questions about the Almighty Creator.  His ability to see the night sky in its nearly-complete wondrous glory will provide him with opportunities to become a sound and thoughtful adult.

The child of urban sprawl will grow up seeing a far different sky.  Her childhood will be spent under a sickly, orange haze.  She will not look up and wonder, because there will be nothing in her night sky to dream about.  Chances are, the overbearing glare of her neighbor’s porch light or a simmering alley bulb will arrest her attention far more than anything up in the sky.  This is not a place to wonder, or dream, or ponder about life and God.  With the simple absence of a decent night sky comes lost opportunity and inspiration for this child living in urban sprawl.

Of course, the city and country skies will never be the same, but the tragedy of light pollution is that so much of it could be mitigated with a trifle of thought, planning, and effort by all.  We are all victims of this least-understood form of pollution.  Not only is it aesthetically uninteresting, it is bad for your health, and both we and all our living ecosystems depend on the quality of a proper night just as much as the radiance of the Sun at day.

The Light Prison


I am a prisoner.  My confinement is not built of walls or fences or gates, but derives from a byproduct of civilization taken for granted.

I see my prison everywhere I go.  It is in the streets, on buildings, emanating from vehicles, even on ourselves and within our pockets.  Looking up to the open sky should bring me solace, but it only reinforces why I know of this prison at all.

I see the telltale signs throughout the day, but the prison’s constricting grasp radiates most fiercely at night.

My prison hinders me, and billions of others, from fully engaging with the greatest physical medium.  It stifles imagination and stunts creativity.  It has created a tragedy of the mind, pushing us to believe in existence merely of the lands and clouds.  Severing our connection with the cosmos limits our potential and halts wonder, impacting even our perspectives on philosophy and Humanity’s enduring search to understand the Divine.

Mankind built this prison, certainly unintentionally, but Man bears responsibility for its upkeep and expansion.  Our continued, collective ignorance reinforces our detention.

It is a prison made from light, sourced from every construct.  From the backyard porch to parking lots.  From street posts to the tallest skyscraper.  Even automobiles and trains.  Anything that emits unshielded photons spilling into the empty sky beyond its intended illumination target contributes to the light prison.

We know our prison from the orange, sickly glow protruding across the horizon.  If you are lucky, this veil has its limitations, for when looking up, you shall see a wisp or more of the true freedom we are being slowly impeded from.

The prison is, ostensibly, pollution.  We have conquered or controlled so many forms of pollution, yet the prison of light continues to grow seemingly unabated.  Perhaps because we cannot smell it, nor tangibly observe a sludge byproduct, is why we continue to ignore the single type pollution that permeates every square measurement of society.  But it is pollution nonetheless, harming ourselves, our environment, and all life that depends on the eternal cadence of dawn and dusk.

We are meant to live in day and rest in night.  Some creatures thrive in the darkness.  The light prison, built in barely a century, distorts all of nature’s ecology, confusing rhythms forged through millions of years.

Acknowledgement of the existence of the light prison is not a call to Armageddon.  We need light, and it is a testament to our intellectual progress that we can bring light to the encompassing darkness with such ease.  What is needed is a societal understanding of both the existence of light pollution and the modest steps we can take to nullify its effects.

Should there be a goal?  Yes, and it is simple.  The the Milky Way in its entirety would be a stretch, but children in even the most populated urban areas should be able to see a night sky with thousands of stars, not just the Moon and Venus a handful of the brightest stars.  The goal is very plausible with better planning and foresight, utilizing prudent techniques to control it.  Architects should incorporate light-shielded designs into buildings and constructions of all varieties.

The light prison will never be deconstructed entirely, but through the spreading knowledge of its existence, and understanding the simple task to contain it, shall we and all of the Earth benefit from the return of the true night and the window to the cosmos it provides.  We will then no longer be prisoners, but proud stewards of a genuine planetary cause.