AUSSIE ASTRO IMAGER’S PHOTO OF AN ISS LUNAR TRANSIT GOES VIRAL
August 13, 2015
While most sky watchers trained their gaze westward for the conjunction of Jupiter and Venus in late June of 2015, Australian photographer and newest Team Celestron member Dylan O’Donnell turned his telescope towards the opposite horizon to snap a series of photos aiming to freeze the International Space Station zipping across the bright surface of the nearly full Moon. Travelling at almost 5 miles per second (7.6km), the ISS is a notoriously problematic target for night time photographers and is often left to specialists like fellow Celestron teammate and famed satellite imager Thierry Legault with his C14” EdgeHD telescope running on custom tracking software. Adding to the difficulty of shooting the speeding station was the fact that O’Donnell was imaging from the Southern Hemisphere which requires a whole new set of technical considerations.
“It’s actually fairly difficult to do a precise polar alignment in the Southern Hemisphere without a nice bright pole star like Polaris, so many southern sky astronomers need to use other techniques. I’ve found drift alignment to be most effective, although it does require a guidescope. I was using lunar tracking with a rough polar alignment for the ISS photo because I didn’t need to be as precise with my drift align procedure which is necessary when I am imaging deep space objects.”
After a blurred attempt a year ago, O’Donnell was better informed and better geared to seize the moment, giving little thought to just how much of a buzz his photo would generate in the local, international, and social media.
“It’s hard to pinpoint why anything would go viral. What that magic ingredient is, I couldn’t say. But I was most happy that a backyard astrophoto was beamed into the lives of people around the world exposing them to the possibilities and the wonder that astronomy can bring even on a modest budget.”
His first telescope was a Celestron 4SE on the Alt-Az mount which he still uses as a “traveler” scope and for some planetary, Lunar, and white light Solar imaging. He also employs the scope and mount for his widefield DSLR astrophotography with his camera “piggy backed” atop the telescope by specialized Celestron adapters. Seeing Commander Chris Hadfield aboard the International Space Station in 2013 unboxing a Celestron 9.25” fork mounted SCT (modified by NASA to be used for Earth observation) greatly influenced O’Donnell and he set out to construct a similar setup. He decided to upgrade to the Celestron c9.25” OTA and then again recently to a 9.25” EdgeHD (2350mm f/10) to gain compatibly with Celestron’s Hyperstar technology along with an equatorial mount in order to explore the more intricate and demanding side of longer exposure deep space astrophotography.
“There is a misconception that amateur astronomy is a very expensive endeavor. Although many of us, myself included, do spend a good amount of money on the pursuit, it’s usually because we want to - not because we have to. The “all-rounder” telescope rig I’ve setup was modelled on the setup that NASA flew to the International Space Station that cost of millions of dollars, but people like me can go out and put together the same setup (or better with Edge HD!) for a fraction of the cost.”
Using the CalSky.com website for satellite pass alerts, O’Donnell trained his rig on the Moon with his Canon 70D attached to the rear cell of the scope, dialed in his settings (1/1650th sec. at ISO 800), and then rapidly fired off a burst of exposures precisely timed to the space station’s speedy transit across the face of the Moon. In one third of a second it was all over and by the time he was able to check his results the ISS was already miles away soaring over some lonely stretch of the Australian outback, some ocean, or some other country. Doing science. In space. Back on Earth, the image began to make the rounds and pick up steam in the social media space, moving quickly into the national media spotlight in O’Donnell’s homeland of Australia before getting the attention of the international press all over the course of a few days.
“The response to the ISS/Moon transit photo was fast and overwhelming. I had no idea the impact a single image could have. The image seemed to appeal to both the technical astrophotography community and the general public, many of whom commented on the sense of perspective and scale it showed.”
But it was when his image was shared on social media by none other than Chris Hadfield, ISS astronaut the original inspiration for his imaging setup used to capture the event, that O’Donnell had realized that his photo had gone viral and seen around the globe. It was even shared by NASA departments and used by the European Space Agency on their homepage as “Image of the Week”. The fallout kept rolling in as he was invited to ESA’s New Norcia tracking station in Western Australia, 150km (approx. 93 miles) north of Perth, to meet the team and see the technology that keep them in communication with Mars Express and the Rosetta mission. The photographer said he’d like to shoot some widefield images of the facility and surrounding area and would try to make the most of his visit to those famous Southern Hemisphere dark skies by packing his 4” Celestron traveler scope and scheduling the trip to coincide with a late rising Moon and the best possible conditions.
In all, O’Donnell seemed to be taking the attention in stride, using the platform to shout out to those who inspired him, and while expressing gratitude for all the excitement over his image he made sure to include a dig at every city-dwelling astrophotographer’s arch nemesis - light pollution.
“I’m very lucky to live in a relatively dark sky area on an urban fringe, and am a huge advocate for the awareness of light pollution and its impact on the earth. I believe that reducing wasteful lighting would not only reveal much of the night sky unavailable to the urban astronomer, but reduce global carbon emissions so radically that it would eclipse all other efforts to date.”
He even used the occasion to talk about Celestron’s innovative EdgeHD technology:
“I have to say, the EdgeHD optics are amazing for astrophotography! Everything improved. The field is nice and flat with virtually no coma distortion or vignetting at the edges and the stars are so crisp and in focus edge to edge that it actually seems like the output has more resolution even with the same imaging equipment. Everything is just sharper.”
And the image just keeps going. Like the ISS it seems to just circle the globe again and again fueled by and fueling people’s imaginations and changing their view of the world and universe around them. Every few days it pops back up on another social media outlet’s feed and as of this writing it has just received the much sought-after Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) designation from NASA, which is O’Donnell’s second APOD to date. And so while some imagers work for years or even decades to get their pictures in APOD, the newest addition to our Team Celestron roster has already bagged his second. To make up for it, we’ve sent him some gear and the accompanying bad weather so you all can catch up. So get out there imagers while you still have the chance!
Sorry for the clouds Dylan, cheers.