Flashing the ISS

In case you missed this story from earlier this week, I wanted to point out an interesting historical event.

For years, people have wondered if the astronauts aboard the International Space Station could see a flashlight, or perhaps laser pointer, pointed at it from the Earth’s surface. While it was theoretically possible and tried a number of times, it had never been done successfully… until March 4, 2012.

Texan amateur astronomers of the San Antonio Astronomy Association and the Austin Astronomy Society put together a plan to prove the possibility. On March 4, these amateur astronomers implemented their experiment. They left the urban lights for dark skies (and as importantly, a dark ground from the vantage point of the ISS) at the Lozano Observatory. There, they set up a one-watt blue laser and a pair of bright spotlights, complete with a simple, yet effective, system to strobe the spotlights: people holding wooden boards. Timing had to be calculated precisely for a couple of reasons. Not only did the ISS have to pass their dark location overhead at night, but it had to be such that the ISS had a view of the Earth without the Sun blinding their view; after all, it is the bright sunlight reflecting off of the ISS that makes is so bright and visible to us on Earth.

Their timing, and a few months of planning, paid off. As the ISS came overhead of the anxious amateur astronomers, they flipped on the laser and began alternating the spotlights on-and-off in two-second intervals. ISS Expedition 30 Flight Engineer, Don Pettit, had been involved in the planning of the experiment and had been communicating with the group in the days leading up to the attempt. At the time that the ground crew began their attempts to flash the space station, Pettit was situated in the ISS Cupola, eyes peeled with his camera snapping pictures. The ISS pass was complete within a few minutes, and the group had to anxiously await feedback from Pettit. The next day, their confirmation came.
Image showing the flash experiment from the ISS.

(Click image for larger size / Image Credit: Don Pettit/Fragile Oasis)

Success! According to Keith Little, Marketing Director of the San Antonio Astronomical Association, Don Pettit told him that not only could he see the spotlights, but easily saw the laser by itself!

It’s wonderful when astronauts orbiting the Earth can work together with amateur astronomers to collaborate on experiments such as this, and its icing on the cake when they make history in the process.

For more information about the event, you can view a video of the experiment from the ground here and listen to an episode of 365 Days of Astronomy pertaining to the event.


Sunday Matinee – John Glenn Chats With ISS Astronauts

As part of the events recognizing the 50th anniversary of John Glenn’s (and the United States’) first orbital spaceflight, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden surprised Senator Glenn with a live video conference with current (Expedition 30) International Space Station Commander Dan Burbank, and Flight Engineers AndrĂ© Kuipers and Don Pettit.

There’s something poetic about watching the first American to orbit the Earth talk to the American’s that, fifty years after John Glenn’s historic flight, live in the Earth’s orbit.

All in all, it was an interesting conversation that’s definitely worth the time to watch.

Sunday Matinee – Aurora Borealis and North America at Night


[Video Credit: Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center]

This video was taken by the crew of Expedition 29 on board the International Space Station. The sequence of shots was taken October 18, 2011 from 07:09:06 to 07:27:42 GMT[.]

This video compacts about 18-and-a-half minutes of ISS travel into about 30 seconds.

What I particularly enjoy about this video is that it starts looking directly to the area of the planet I occupy. Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula is easily distinguishable, especially due to the city lights of Kenai, Soldotna, Homer, and Seward. South of that you can see Kodiak Island. Immediately north of the Kenai Peninsula, Anchorage is brightly lit; Fairbanks can be seen even further to the north. The video travels east across the United States, as you find yourself struggling to decide on whether you should watch the aurora borealis (northern lights) to the north, or try to guess all of the cities you can see due to the concentrated man-made light. Clouds obscure much of the view between Alaska and the Rockies, but they break in time to offer great Canadian views of Calgary and Edmonton.

Following that, Minneapolis/St.Paul stand out, just before Chicago takes center-stage at around 24 seconds in, brilliantly lit, just south of Lake Michigan. You can catch the flashes of a lightning storm as we continue east towards the East Coast of the United States. You might notice how populated and electrified the East Coast is, compared to the Mid-West and the central United States. The video ends just after our view heads east over the coast of Florida, and above the shallow waters of the Bahamas.