How To Take Photos Of Earth While Whizzing At 17,000 MPH

A timelapse photo taken by Don Pettit on the International Space Station. Credit: Don Pettit/NASA

When you’re flying above Earth in a spaceship or space station, taking a clear picture below is more than a point-and-shoot job. As NASA astronaut Don Pettit explains in this video, you need to account for the motion of your little craft to get the best pictures below. And Pettit should know, being a photographer who captured many stunning timelapses in space.

“Apart from everything else an astronaut does on orbit, photography is actually part of our job,” Pettit said in the video. “We take pictures of Earth and the surroundings of Earth, the upper atmosphere. These pictures, in themselves, represent a scientific dataset, recorded now for over 14 years.”

The video is called “From Above” and is a production of SmugMug films, who also did an interview with Pettit. As it turns out, much of the photography taken in space is not of Earth — it’s engineering photography of window smudges or electrical connections to help diagnose problems happening in space.

“These things need to be documented so the images can be downlinked for engineers on the ground to assess what’s happening to the systems on space station,” Pettit said in the interview. “We get training specifically on doing these engineering images, which, for the most part, are not really interesting to the public.”

What Happens To Your Skin in Space

A spray of dead skin flakes comes off with every sock (screenshot)

The microgravity environment of the ISS poses many challenges to the human body — some more expected than others — but one that many people might not know about is the “molting” of dry skin, notably from the bottom of the feet. And while astronauts living aboard Space Station often spend their days working in socks, when they go to remove them they have to be especially careful to keep floating clouds of flakes at a minimum, lest they incite allergic reactions in their crewmates.

Yeah, you read that right. “Floating clouds of flakes.” Eeeewwwwww.

In the latest episode of ISS Science Garage NASA astronauts Mike Massimino and Don Pettit discuss some of the finer details of podiatric etiquette whilst sojourning aboard the ISS. (Unfortunately saying it fancy-like doesn’t make it any less gross.) All I have to say is, I wouldn’t want to be the one who has to clean out the vent filters.

Image Follow-up: Fire Up Your Spacecraft Thrusters!

An image from the ISS in 2012 showing re-boost thrusters firing. Credit: NASA.

Here’s a follow-up on an interesting image we posted last year, during Don Pettit’s stay on the International Space Station during Expedition 30/31. Pettit had posted this beautiful, sci-fi-looking image on his Google+ page, but didn’t say what it was, only describing it as “Orion in the headlights.” The constellation Orion is off in the distance, but there was some debate about what the light source was: was it light coming from a window on the ISS or a thruster burn?

It turns out this is likely one of the first ever-images of a thrust-burn taken (or released) from the ISS. An Debris Avoidance Maneuver took place at 10.12 GMT (5:12 a.m. EST) on February 29, 2012 and G+ commenter Peter Caltner pointed out, “the scenic lighting effect ends exactly in [the series of images that Pettit took] at the end of the 76 seconds of the burn duration.”

Engineers at Johnson Space Center confirmed to Universe Today this was in fact a thruster burn from the thrusters located on the aft end of the Zvezda Service Module.

The JSC team told us that during a burn, most of the windows are covered so they don’t get damaged so there’s not a lot of opportunity to take a picture like this. But the astronaut or cosmonaut that took this image was in the Pirs module looking toward the aft end of the Service Module, where the reboost engines are located. The “downward” -facing window (looks “up” in this image) is the large observation window in the Russian Zvezda Service Module.

But does this actually show a thruster plume?

Very likely, the light seen here is not actually the light from the rockets after igniting for lifting the station. Caltner, who regularly answers questions from the public on Twitter and G+ about images from space, said the light probably comes from the docking headlights, switched on deliberately for illuminating the exhaust gases of the booster rockets.

It’s an intriguing shot, and the debate on it (and finding out more about it) has been fascinating and interesting!

The NASA Crew Earth Observation site is a fun place to lose yourself looking through all the wonderful images taken from space. You can find images from the early Mercury flights to the most recent taken, and you can also find those extremely cool timelapse videos taken from the ISS. Those NEVER get old.

Welcome to the Space Station Science Garage

What do you get when you combine Mike Massimino, Don Pettit, Chris Hadfield, Tom Marshburn and some bean bag chairs? Space geek heaven, perhaps? Here’s the premier edition of a new series, and it features a great discussion about what it is like to fly in the cramped Soyuz after living in the expanse of the International Space Station for five months.

This looks like a great new series, as any day you can get Don Pettit talking science is a good day! Look for more in this series that will showcases human spaceflight and science aboard the International Space Station.

The Challenges of Photography Aboard the ISS

Astronaut Don Pettit with some of his cameras on board the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

Don Pettit has always been one of our favorite astronauts. From his “Saturday Morning Science” and “Science Off the Sphere” to his Zero-G coffee cup, he offered a take on living and working in space that was always just a bit different from the rest of the astronaut corps. During his last stay on the International Space Station, he took photography to a new level, and fellow astrophotographer Christoph Malin has paid a fitting tribute to Pettit with this wonderful new video, which not only showcases Pettit’s work (and Malin’s too!), but allows him to explain the challenges of astrophotography aboard the ISS.

“It can not be emphasized enough, how Dr. Pettits innovative photographic work and his passion has changed the way we see earth from space,” Malin wrote on his Vimeo page. You can read about the genesis of this project at Malin’s website.


“Making the invisible visible” – the ISS Image Frontier from Christoph Malin on Vimeo.

Don Pettit: Astronaut, Mr. Science, Space Gardner and Astrophotographer Extraordinaire

After completing 193 days in space as a member of the Expedition 30 and 31 crews, astronaut Don Pettit returned to Earth on July 1, 2012. Don is not your average, ordinary, fighter-pilot astronaut: he’s got a penchant for science, with a unique way of looking at things. He spent his expedition performing crazy zero-gravity experiments, grappling the first commercial spacecraft to visit the ISS, and blogging as his alter-ego, a zuchinni plant, among other things. Universe Today had the chance to talk with Pettit this morning about his experiences:

Nancy: Good morning Don. It’s an honor to talk with you. Congratulations on such a successful expedition.

Don Pettit: It’s great to talk with you!

Nancy: You did a lot of science experiments during your stay in space, both the official ISS program experiments and also your own “Science off the Sphere” experiments. Of the official ones, which was the most interesting and engaging or perhaps what you felt was the most important experiment that you did?

Don Pettit: There were two categories of experiments that really captivated me. One is the human life science experiments that we do on ourselves, where we poke and prod ourselves and take blood and other samples, trying to figure out how this thing called the human being operates in a weightless environment. The other category of experiment that I thought was really fascinating was combustion. That’s a fancy way of saying ‘fire’ which of course is what is required to power our current civilization.

Caption: Pettit working with the Structure and Liftoff In Combustion Experiment (SLICE) in the Destiny laboratory of the International Space Station. Pettit conducted three sets of flame tests, followed by a fan calibration. This test will lead to increased efficiency and reduced pollutant emission for practical combustion devices. Credit: NASA

Nancy: What was your favorite Science off the Sphere experiment that you did?

Don Pettit: Oh, probably the one that has to do with the knitting needles and looking at charged droplets in a stable orbit around the knitting needles. That was really fun and simple and a fun demonstration of what you can do when you remove gravitational forces and replace them with small forces like charged forces.

Nancy: I think that was my favorite one too!

I want to say thank you on behalf of everyone, I think, on planet Earth, for the amazing images you took during your mission– the star trails, the aurorae, the transit of Venus are just a few examples — your images were just spectacular. How important is the photography that the astronauts do as far as documenting your expedition and being able to share your experiences with the public?

Don Pettit: If a picture is worth a thousand words and we take thousands of pictures that certainly says something in terms of the magnitude of communication we can have in conveying this amazing environment to people on Earth, who are of course, the ones collectively who makes this happen, and we are the lucky ones that get to go into space.

Part of any explorations, when you are going into the frontier and you come back you need to explain to people what the frontier is like, you need to share the stories and experience. Images now are one of the prime ways of doing that. I think the taking of both still images and video in space is not only an important pastime for the astronauts to do, but important to convey to the public that ultimately funds the space program, what is going on up there and how wonderful an environment this is. And eventually our technology will move to the point where people, wholesale, can jump in their rockets and go into this frontier.

Caption: Petit left his camera shutter open for long periods of time to capture star trails and trails of lights on Earth.

Nancy: We sure hope so!

You were an integral part of the SpaceX Dragon grapple and berth, the first commercial spaceship to visit the ISS. After being a part of that, what are your thoughts about the private industry becoming perhaps a vital part of human spaceflight, and in particular for space station operations?

Don Pettit: The commercial space is a natural flow for going into a frontier environment like space. You can see analogs of the wild west in the United States getting settled with a combination of both government programs and government sponsored commercial programs and I think we are going to see the same thing going into space. It’s an important aspect of opening the frontier so that more than just a few government-born programs can operate in this environment.

Nancy: Thanks Don, great to talk with you!

Don Pettit: It’s a pleasure.

I also wanted to ask him a few other questions, but ran out of time. At a reader’s suggestion I was going to ask him about the eggs on the Angry Birds Space video, and how he got them into space. Robert Pearlman from collectSPACE later asked him that question, however, and Pettit replied coyly that all astronauts has some personal items they can bring up, but as to how they got up there, Pettit said he’d leave that one unanswered.

I loved Pettit’s analogy about being an explorer of the frontier and in later interviews he had a great comment about Tweeting and exploring:

Don Pettit: Part of any exploration, like when the Antarctic was explored, they’d return home and tell their stories, spread their experience with those who didn’t have the good fortune get to go, and we are using what is available to us now. If Shackleton had the ability to Tweet, I’m sure he would have Tweeted during his expeditions to Antarctica. On station we have limited time and bandwidth and have help from people on the ground who will help get our information out.

I do get feedback (from his social media posts) and some of the comments will get condensed and sent up to me in an email message, and I take the time to read those. Some bring a pretty big smile to my face. And it is neat to see that you are having an effect, that people are following what you are doing and listening to some of the stories you have to tell.

Pettit talked more about his opportunity for photographing unique astronomical events in space:

Don Pettit: One of the most amazing things is to be able to see something like a comet. We saw a comet, saw a solar eclipse and the transit of Venus, so had a number of fairly rare natural astronomical phenomena. When you see it from space, the vantage point is slightly different and allows you to see the physics of the situation– the shadow of the Moon appears as a dark spot on Earth, and lets you know that, gosh, the guys who wrote the textbooks about this figured all this out without seeing it from this vantage point.

Pettit added that the Transit of Venus was an amazing opportunity, and he brought a full-aperture solar telescope just for the occasion. He said he hopes the images they were able to collect hopefully will be useful in the whole ensemble of images that people took from Earth of the event.

Pettit has now spent a total of 370 days in space, more than a year of his life, and he was asked if he would like to go back:

Don Pettit: I would love to fly back to station again, but there is a bunch of folks standing in line, and everyone needs to wait their turn — there is certain fairness on how this happens. I will throw my name in the hat and get back in line and see what happens. The assignments now go out to about 2015, so if space station has a lifetime to about 2020, about half of all the people going to station have already been assigned.

Later Pettit said: I would go back to space in a nano-second. That’s what I do for a living and give me a few days to get my feet on the ground and I’m ready to go again.

And then he was asked if he would go on a mission away from Earth:

Don Pettit: I’d be willing to immigrate into space and not come back as long as we would have the technology to survive. Going one way to Mars and then running out of air to die is not in the cards. If you went to Mars like people went from continental Europe to the New World, I’d load my family up in the next rocket and we’d immigrate into space.

Caption: Another star-trail image by Pettit.

Another question was if being in space ever gets routine.

Don Pettit: It can be both special and routine. Take your breakfast for example. I found that humans like to have a routine for breakfast, and that gives you certain amount of comfort. But it doesn’t get routine as far as living and working in space. Every day has another eye-opening piece of excitement and you learn something new and that is part of being on a frontier.

About his blogging from the perspective of a zucchini plant in space:

Don Pettit: I wanted to write from the equivalent of a potted plant in the corner, and I wanted to write about it because the technology associated with it is not necessarily straightforward, and I could make it like a gardening manual in space. I decided to write the story of how you grow plants in space from the eyes of a zucchini.

Pettit was asked which transition is harder: going to space or coming back to Earth:

Don Pettit: The adjustment going to space is easier than coming back down to Earth. It takes a while to get rid of this heavy feeling.
Later he said that his first thoughts on landing were, “Welcome back to gravity this is really tough,” and then “when do I get to hug my boys?”

What does the ISS smell like?

Don Pettit: Part machine shop, engine room, laboratory and then when you are cooking dinner and rip open a pouch of stew you can smell a little roast beef.

ISS Expedition 31 Crew Returns Safely to Earth

We’re sure going to miss Don Pettit’s and Andre Kuipers’ reports and images from the International Space Station. Pettit, Kuipers and Russian Commander Oleg Kononenko undocked from the International Space Station and returned safely to Earth on July 1, wrapping up their six-and-a-half-month mission in orbit.

They landed in their Soyuz TMA-03M spacecraft in Kazakhstan at 08:14 a.m. UT (2:14 p.m. local time) after undocking from the space station’s Rassvet module at 04:47 UT. This video shows a great view of the Soyuz slowly drifting down (it’s interesting to see the parachute undulate, looking almost like a jellyfish!) and then visible are the breaking thrusters firing just a second before the hard landing.

The trio originally arrived at the station back on Dec. 23, 2011, and during this mission spent a total of 193 days in space, 191 of which were aboard the station.

During their expedition, the crew supported more than 200 scientific investigations involving more than 400 researchers around the world. The studies ranged from integrated investigations of the human cardiovascular and immune systems to fluid, flame and robotic research. They also were part of the team that successfully berthed the first commercial spacecraft to visit the ISS, the SpaceX Dragon capsule.

Before leaving the station, Kononenko handed over command of Expedition 32 to the Russian Federal Space Agency’s Gennady Padalka, who remains aboard the station with NASA astronaut Joe Acaba and Russian cosmonaut Sergei Revin. NASA astronaut Sunita Williams, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Akihiko Hoshide will join them July 17. Williams, Malenchenko and Hoshide are scheduled to launch July 14 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

During Expedition 31, Pettit used household objects aboard the station to perform a variety of unusual physics experiments for the video series “Science Off the Sphere,” like his recent video showing water balloons in space. Through these demonstrations, Pettit showed more than a million Internet viewers how space affects scientific principles.

On June 25, Pettit reached a milestone: spending one cumulative year in space, combining his time in orbit on Expedition 6, Expedition 30/31 and the STS-126 space shuttle Endeavour flight to the station in November 2008. Pettit now has 370 days in space, placing him fourth among U.S. space fliers for the longest time in space.

Kuipers conducted over 50 scientific experiments for ESA, and shared, almost daily, images and reports of his stay in space. The next ESA astronaut to board the Space Station is Luca Parmitano of Italy, who will fly on Soyuz TMA-09M in 2013 as member of Expedition 36/37.

Water Balloons in Space

As part of his ongoing (and always entertaining) “Science Off the Sphere” series, Expedition 31 flight engineer Don Pettit experiments in orbit with a classic bit of summertime fun: water balloons.

Captured in real-time and slow-motion, we get to see how water behaves when suddenly freed from the restraints of an inflated latex balloon… and gravity. With Don NASA doesn’t only get a flight engineer, it gets its very own Mr. Wizard in space — check it out!

Don Pettit’s Guide to Space Etiquette: Having Guests for Dinner

If you haven’t been reading astronaut Don Pettit’s “Letters to Earth” – a diary of his 6-month stay in space – it’s a great look at living on board the International Space Station. He talks about everything from the big events to the minutia of daily life. His latest entry about being a gracious host in space is classic Pettit: detailed, precise, with just a hint of snark. We present it in its entirety here:

It does not matter that you’ve seen the same faces every day for months on end; you’d still like to invite everyone over to “your module” for dinner. With invitations accepted, you prepare for the occasion. But what is the expected etiquette for entertaining in orbit? How do you arrange things so your guests will not think you are gauche? Here are a few space-tested guidelines to help in the preparations.

Have plenty of food, and serve your very best. Now is the time to break out those thermal-stabilized pouches of beef steak that you have been hoarding. Bring out any specialty item from your personal crew allotment (these items arrive on the periodic unmanned resupply spacecraft that visit us). Perhaps you can share a can of smoked anchovies, New Mexico green chili, or a piece of Old Amsterdam cheese. Always serve something special that is not repeatedly eaten on the standard nine-day menu. Being generous now will reap more benefits than eating these delicacies in solitude.

The choice of beverage is rather limited. You can serve the standard ones: coffee, tea, and artificially flavored, artificially colored, sugar-loaded, fruit-replica drinks. All, of course, are served in a bag, and you sip the fluid through a straw. The image of an insect sucking the juices from some lower insect may come to mind, but in space it is considered impolite to give voice to such imagery.

You can provide a special treat if you have access to one of the research refrigerators. In space, all your food is either hot or at room temperature. When you live in an isothermal environment, it can be a real treat to serve your guests a bag of cold water.

For special occasions—perhaps after a space walk or the docking of a resupply vehicle—you can serve your beverages in a “zero-g” cup. This is something you will have to make from scrap plastic sheeting (instructions are in Appendix C). These cups allow you to sip beverages from an open container, like we do on Earth. Zero-g cups, unlike bags with straws, are better for social rituals like toasting, and will bring a smile to the faces of your guests.

It is important to dress up your galley. Have full packets of wet and dry wipes within easy reach on the galley table. Take any partial packets and save them for another time. Empty the trash bins. A full trash bin is problematic; a handful of small things typically float out when new items are added. This rudely interrupts conversation while everyone scatters to collect the floating debris. It is good to have two trash bins; the standard-sized one for largish items, and an old wet wipe container for small ones. This separation of smaller trash—cutoff pouch corners, food crumbs, and wrappers—helps prevents their release when the lid is opened. Be sure to label this wet wipe container “trash”. Newly arrived crew may not be aware of this trash protocol, so it is best to politely demonstrate by example. They will learn quickly enough.

Clean the food scissors. Scissors are needed to open food pouches, as tearing them along the built-in perforations usually results in liberating hot droplets of fatty ooze and other asteroid-like particles. That’s why, if the scissors aren’t kept clean, they become caked in solidified gravy to the point where they become glued shut (not to mention being slightly repulsive). Such a state is considered rude, so clean your scissors before the guests arrive.

Always have a loaner spoon available. In weightlessness, it is easy to lose things. It is not unusual in a group of six for someone’s spoon to have floated off. Having a clean loaner spoon allows for the evening to continue and the conversation to flow. It is rude to give your guest a loaner spoon caked in crud from the last time it was used. The lost spoon is usually found by morning, stuck to a ventilator inlet screen, and your guest will appreciate it being returned.

Always put out new tape. The galley table has multiple spots of Velcro to park packets of food. However, not all packets and pouches have mating spots of Velcro, which means they can’t be set down on the table. Several strips of duct tape, carefully folded so the adhesive side is out (see Appendix D for instructions), allows such containers to be parked on the table. Tape left over from the previous week, while perfectly functional, collects errant crumbs, hairs, lint, and other unsightly things. Displaying dirty tape is exceedingly rude to your guests; always put out new, clean tape.

In space, catching food in your mouth is considered polite. Opening wide and making a clean catch will most always bring cheers from your guests. In one impressive gulp, you can leave them with the image of some sea creature inhaling another. Catching food in your mouth, like belching at the table (considered impolite in most cultures, but a compliment to the chef in others) is rude on Earth but de rigueur in space.

By following these simple rules, you will ensure a delightful evening with your guests. And remember, on the space frontier, the etiquette book is still being written. I encourage you to invent new ways of conducting everyday life, including entertaining. It is one of the reasons we find ourselves here in the first place.

Source: NASA Blogs

Image captions:

Astronauts eats gummy worms in space. Credit: NASA

Don Pettit displays his favorite snack in space. Credit: NASA

NASA astronaut Don Pettit (left) and European Space Agency astronaut Andre Kuipers, both Expedition 31 flight engineers, eat a snack in the Unity node of the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

Venus Transit As Seen from the International Space Station

The transit of Venus on June 5, 2012 as seen from the International Space Station. Credit: NASA/Don Pettit


The guy known as Mr. Fixit in space was also Mr. Prepared. This image is from NASA Astronaut Don Pettit on board the International Space Station, who had the foresight to bring a solar filter for his camera. “I’ve been planning this for a while,” said Pettit. “I knew the Transit of Venus would occur during my rotation, so I brought a solar filter with me when my expedition left for the ISS in December 2011.”

This is his first image, and we’ll add more as they become available. Pettit is trying to download his images almost real-time. He is photographing the historic transit of Venus through the Space Station’s Cupola, removing the scratch panes on the Cupola’s windows to get crisp, clear images.

Pettit is using a high-end Nikon D2Xs camera and an 800mm lens with a full-aperture white light solar filter.