The Moon from Earth As You’ve Never Seen it Before

The Morteus region on the Moon, taken from the suburbs of Paris, France. Credit: Thierry Legault. Used by permission.

Think this is an orbital view of the Moon? Guess again. Astrophotographer Thierry Legault took this image from his backyard in the suburbs of Paris, France! He’s taken a series of images of the Moon the past few nights that will blow your mind when you consider they were taken from Earth, within the confines of the metropolis of Paris (largest city in France, 5th largest in the EU, 20th largest in the world). Thierry used a Celestron C14 EdgeHD (356mm) and Skynyx2.2 camera. You definitely want to click on these images for the larger versions on Thierry’s website, and he suggests using a full-HD screen in subdued surroundings.

Additionally, Thierry also recently took images of Mercury and Uranus that include incredible detail.

Plato, Mons Pico and Montes Teneriffe as seen on Sept 8th, 2010, from the suburbs of Paris, France. Credit: Thierry Legault. Used by permission.

The clarity and detail are just tremendous. See all of Thierry’s recent lunar images at this link. He has a collection of twelve different images of various regions on the Moon and all are stunning.

Below are his images of Mercury and Uranus. In the image of Mercury, surface details are visible, and the cloud belts are even visible on the images of Uranus:

Incredibly detailed view of Mercury on August 23, 2012, as seen from Blancourt, France. Credit: Thierry Legault. Used by permission.

Uranus, as seen on September 9, 2012 from Blancourt, France. Credit: Thierry Legault. Used by permission.

Thanks, as always, to Thierry Legault for sharing his images and allowing us to post them. Check out his website: for more wonderful images and information about how he does his amazing astrophotography.

Timelapse from Thierry Legault: One Night on the Pic-du-Midi Observatory

Here’s a really unique video from one of our favorite astrophotographers, Thierry Legault. Thierry sent us a full HD time-lapse of the full sky during one full night (August 7-8) over the Pic-du-Midi Observatory in the French Pyrenees. At 2,877 meters in altitude, this is the highest observatory in France. The video is taken with a fisheye lens, and so the view creates what appears to be a tiny little world (Planet Pic-du-Midi, perhaps?). Visible are Saturn and Mars, then the Moon, Jupiter and Venus. And a passage of the ISS and an Iridium flare complete the planet-like scene. “The rotation of the sky around Polaris is easily noticeable,” Thierry wrote to Universe Today, “as well as the movement of circumpolar constellations such as Big Dipper. The main dome is the 1-meter telescope, I was there with three friends to learn how to use this telescope for future planetary missions. This telescope was used in the 60’s to prepare the Apollo lunar missions because of the quality of its optics and the very good seeing of this site.”

Continue reading “Timelapse from Thierry Legault: One Night on the Pic-du-Midi Observatory”

Thierry Legault: One Transit is Not Enough


Astrophotographer Thierry Legault had told us he was traveling to Australia for the Transit of Venus, so we knew he had something special planned. But that still didn’t prepare us for the awesomeness of what he has just achieved. During the Transit of Venus, Legault also captured the Hubble Space Telescope moving across the face of the Sun. Not once, but 9 times, during the HST’s transit time of .97 seconds. “Thanks to the continuous shooting mode of the Nikon D4 DSLR running at 10 fps,” Legault said on his website, which shows his new images. Of course, due to the differences in distance from Earth of Hubble vs. Venus, Venus took a lazy 6-plus hours to make its transit. A few giant sunspots also join in the view.

Below see a close-up of the two transits and a look at Legault’s set-up in the Outback of Queensland.

A close-up of Venus and Hubble (tiny black dots just above Venus) transiting the Sun. Credit: Thierry Legault. Used by permission.
Legault's equipment setup for viewing the Venus Transit in Queensland, Australia. Credit: Thierry Legault. Used by permission.

Legault noted that just one of the telescope/camera setups was his. So, he had just one chance of capturing the double transit. And he nailed it.

Here’s the map from CalSky of where the HST transit would be visible, just a thin band across the top of Queensland:

Map from CalSky of the Hubble Transit. Via Thierry Legault.

Legault said he has some more images on the way, including the ring of the atmosphere of Venus around the first contact, images of the transit in H-alpha, and the full ring of Venus 24 hours after the transit, so keep checking his website for more fantastic images.

Congratulations to Thierry Legault for a truly amazing and special capture of the Transit of Venus, something that won’t happen again in our lifetimes. And thanks to Thierry for sharing his images with Universe Today.

Big Sunspot; Little Chinese Space Station


Astrophotographer extraordinaire Thierry Legault has made a name for himself with his images of spacecraft transiting across the face of the Sun. He has done it again by capturing the first-ever image of the Tiangong-1 space station transiting the Sun. The monster sunspot, AR 1476 absolutely dwarfs the Chinese space station (inside the circle), but you can see incredible details of the Tiangong-1 below in a zoomed-in version. Legault had less than a second to capture the event, with the Tiangong traveling at 7.4km/s (26500 km/h or 16500 mph,) the transit duration was only 0.9 seconds! The size of the station is pretty small — as without solar panels the first module of the Tiangong measures just 10.3 x 3.3 meters.

Zoomed and cropped version of the first image of a solar transit of Tiangong-1, the first module of the Chinese space station, taken from Southern France on May 11th 2012. Credit: Thierry Legault. Used by permission. Inset: CNSA.

Legault’s equipment was a Takahashi FSQ-106 refractor, a Baader Herschel prism and Canon 5D Mark II camera. Exposure of 1/8000s at 100 ISO.

As Legault told us in an interview earlier this year, in order to capture such images he studies maps, uses CalSky software, and has a radio synchronized watch to know very accurately when the transit event will happen.

“My camera has a continuous shuttering for 4 seconds, so I begin the sequence 2 seconds before the calculated time,” he said. “I don’t look through the camera – I never see the space station when it appears, I am just looking at my watch!”

For a transit event, he gets a total of 16 images – 4 images every second, and only after he enlarges the images will he know if he succeeded or not.

“There is a kind of feeling that is short and intense — an adrenaline rush!” Legault said. “I suppose it is much like participating in a sport, but the feeling is addictive.”

Thanks to Thierry for sharing his latest success, and you can see larger versions of these images, and much more at his website.

How to Avoid ‘Bad Astrophotography:’ Advice from Thierry Legault

Take a look at the collection of images above. All are high resolution astrophotos of different artificial satellites, taken by renowned astrophotographer Thierry Legault, using one of his 10″ telescopes and a simple webcam. The images have been sharpened and enlarged so that it’s easy to see small structures on the satellites such as antennas or solar panels.

Like this one, which is surely the Soyuz, with solar panels on each side:

Could this object be a Soyuz spacecraft? Credit: Thierry Legault

These are pretty awesome images….

…except Thierry and I are not telling the truth.

These images are not of satellites, but are all pictures of the star Vega.

What you have just seen is an example of what Legault calls “Bad Astrophotography,” a phrase Legault uses in homage to Phil Plait and his Bad Astronomy blog. Basically, this means that because of image artifacts or over-processing you can be fooled – intentionally or unintentionally — into seeing something that is not really there.

“In any raw image there is noise and if you process this image too strongly, the noise appears and some processing can transform the noise into something that looks like detail – but it is not detail,” said Legault.

So just like the images that have been touted as the Bigfoot on Mars, or even blurry pictures of supposed UFOs, sometimes astrophotos can look like something they are not.

“Many people are not aware that an image is not reality — it is a transformation of reality,” Legault told Universe Today, “and any image that is taken under difficult conditions or close to the resolution limits of the telescope, the image is less and less reliable or reflects less and less the reality.”

Many things can cause problems in astrophotography:

  • atmospheric turbulence, which can distort images and even create false details or make real ones disappear
  • the unavoidable shaking of the telescope due to manual tracking, especially in satellite imaging
  • noise, the variation of brightness or color in images, due to sensor and circuitry of a digital camera, or the diffraction of light from the telescope

These problems may be hard to avoid, depending on your equipment and level of skill. So what should an astrophotographer do?

“The solution for these issues is to be careful with processing,” Legault explained. “I’ve often said the best, most skilled person in imaging processing is not the one that knows all the possibilities of processing, but the person that knows when to stop processing an image.”


Over-processing, such as multiple smoothing, sharpening and enlargement operations, or layer transformations and combinations in Photoshop can create false details in images.

The issues with the lead image in this article of all the “satellites” — the structures and the different colors you see — are mainly caused by atmospheric turbulence and noise in the raw images, combined with effects from the color sensor in the camera.

Atmospheric Turbulence

Think of how when you look at a star that is low on the horizon with the naked eye, you see twinkling, and sometimes even changes in color, so the atmospheric turbulence can definitely make an effect on colors.

The star Vega again, a series of images put together in an animation: it appears to be a satellite during its flight showing variation of size and apparent rotation. But it is not. Credit: Thierry Legault.

“When you observe a star through a telescope at high magnification, it can become even more distorted,” Legault said. “You have spikes, distortions and changes in shape, and a star that is supposed to be a point or a disk, unfortunately, by turbulence is transformed into something that is completely distorted and can take many shapes.”

Equipment issues

Additionally, Legault said, combining the distortions with an effect from color sensors in the camera, called the Bayer sensor, can cause additional issues.

“For the sensor, you have pixels by groups of four: one red, one blue and two green in square,” Legault said, “and you can easily imagine that if the object is very small, such as a very small star, the light can fall on a red pixel and then the image can become red. Then the image of the star is distorted and you have some spikes that fall on a different color pixel.”

And then the processing does the rest, transforming turbulence and camera artifacts into details that may look real, Legault said.

Legault recalled an amateur who, a few years ago, published an image of Saturn’s moon Titan.

“The image contained surface details and a sharp disk edge,” he said, “and looked quite convincing. But we all know that Titan is covered with an opaque and uniform atmosphere, and surface details can’t be seen. The details were actually only artifacts created from noise or other image defects by over-processing a poor resolution image with multiple upsizing, downsizing, sharpening and smoothing operations.”

What’s an amateur astrophotographer to do?

So, with more and more people doing astrophotography these days, how can they make sure that what they think they are seeing is real?

“There are solutions like combining raw images,” Legault said. “When you combine 10 or 20 or 100 raw images, you can decrease the noise and the image is more reliable and less distorted by turbulence.”

For example, take a look at the images of the space shuttle Discovery below. The two left images are consecutive single frames, processed by smoothing (noise reduction), sharpening (wavelets) and was enlarged 3 times.

The space shuttle discovery imaged in orbit. Credit and copyright: Thierry Legault

The first and second images, although blurry, seem to show lots of very small details. But when they are compared together or with a combination of the 27 best images of the series (on the right), only the larger structures are finally common.

“The bright line marked A is not real, it is an artifact likely caused by turbulence,” Legault said, “and if it were an image of the space station taken during an EVA, I could perhaps claim that this detail is an astronaut, but I would be wrong. The double dark spot marked B, could be taken for windows on top of the cockpit of Discovery. But it is not real; if it were an image of the Space Station, I could claim that it’s the windows of the Cupola, but again I would be wrong. In C, the two parallel lines of the payload bay door is common to both images, but a comparison with the right image, which contains only real details, show that they are not real and that they are probably a processing artifact.”

One of the drawbacks of color sensors is that there is more noise in the image, so the image is less reliable than with black and white sensors. This is the reason that deep sky cameras often use black and white sensors. And so for imaging satellites like the International Space Station, Legault uses a black and white camera.

“It is more reliable, and you don’t need a color camera because the space station is colorless, except for the solar panels,” Legault said. “In addition, the monochrome sensor is much more sensitive to light, by 3 or 4 times. More sensitive means you have less noise.”

Logical advice

Legault’s main advice is just to be logical about what you are seeing in both raw and processed images.

“You need to look at the whole image, the consistency of the whole image, and not just one detail,” he said. “If I take an image that I say has detail on Jupiter’s satellites and on the same image I cannot even see the great red spot on Jupiter, it doesn’t work – that is not possible. The image must have an overall consistency and include details of an object larger than the one that we are interested in. So, if we see an image where someone is supposed to have an astronaut and a module of the space station, and a larger module is not visible or is completely distorted, there is a problem.”

On March 7, 2011 the robotic arm on space shuttle Discovery is used for a last inspection of the protection tiles before landing on the STS-133 mission. Image credit and copyright: Thierry Legault

Another piece of advice is to compare your image to another image taken by someone else — another amateur astrophotographer, a professional or even a space agency.

“If You have a photo of the space shuttle or the space station, for example, you can compare it to a real photo and see if all the details are there,” Legault said.

And if you still have questions about what you are seeing on your own images, Legault also suggests posting your images on astronomy forums so you can get the analysis and insights of other amateur astrophotographers.

“So, there are solutions to make sure that details are real details,” Legault said, “and as you get used to observing raw images and processed images, it will become easier to understand if everything is real, if just a part is real, or if almost nothing is real.”

But Legault’s main advice is not to over-process your images. “Many of amateurs take amazing, sharp images and using gentle and reasonable processing so that there are no artifacts.”

For more information and advice from Thierry Legault, see his website, especially the technical pages. Legault has written a detailed article for the March issue of Sky & Telescope on how to image the International Space Station.

You can also read our article on Legault’s astrophotography, published on March 1, 2012.

Thierry Legault: Astrophotography is an ‘Adrenaline Rush’


During one of the final space shuttle missions, photographer Thierry Legault traveled nearly 4,000 km across various locations in Europe to try and capture the shuttle docked to the International Space Station as the two spacecraft transited across the surface of the Sun.

“Essentially, I was trying to catch the clear sky so I could take images of an event that would last less than a second,” Legault said from his home in France.

This type of dedication to his craft, along with his attention to detail and quality has earned Legault the reputation as one of the top amateur astrophotographers in the world.

Amazingly, he started his astrophotography hobby — and his specialty of imaging objects in front of the Sun — just by chance. And now Legault has been shooting breathtaking images of spacecraft in orbit and astronomical objects and events for nearly 20 years.

“I began in 1993 with one of the first CCD cameras, the first year that CCD cameras were available for amateurs,” Legault said. “It was a wonderful time, because it was a time of pioneers, and it was a revolution after film.”

An Airplane in Front of the Sun Credit & Copyright: Thierry Legault

Intrigued by what could be done with digital equipment, he experimented by taking planetary and deep sky pictures and has now amassed a prolific portfolio of stunning images. In 2001 he took the first of the type of images he has become renown for.

“I took a picture of a plane in front of the Sun,” Legault recalled, “and it was published on APOD (Astronomy Picture of the Day), and so now I have taken many images of things in front of the Sun.”

Image of the solar transit of the International Space Station (ISS) and Space Shuttle Atlantis, 50 minutes after undocking from the ISS, before return to Earth, taken from the area of Mamers, Normandie, France on September 17, 2006. Credit and copyright, Thierry Legault

In 2006 he took pictures of the space station and space shuttle side by side just as the shuttle undocked. It was published by newspapers around the world, including a double page in the Guardian, was shown on CNN and other news shows, and was everywhere on the internet.

“It was an incredible success, which was very surprising. This type of imaging is very fun for me, as I like the challenge,” Legault said. “But it is interesting how taking a picture of a spaceship in front of the Sun is really something for non-astronomers, but yet I never received so much interest for all the other astronomy images I have taken.”

Legault said he has received emails and letters from people around the world expressing how much they enjoy his transit images.

One of the setups Legault uses for solar imaging. Image courtesy Thierry Legault

Living in the suburbs of Paris means there are plenty of lights to interfere with his astrophotography.

“Where I live is not a problem for taking pictures of some satellites, the Sun, the Moon and planets,” he said. “For deep space imaging and for the space station, I have to put everything in the van and drive 20-30 kilometers and go to the country; also for solar or lunar transits I have to go to the place where the transit is visible.”

This is the first image ever taken from the ground, of an astronaut in extravehicular activity (EVA1). Steve Bowen, attached to the end of the ISS robotic arm (MSS), was working on a defective ammonia pump. The pump was hooked to the ISS mobile base system (MBS). All major elements of the robotic arm are visible, including the structures of the motorized joints and some elements along the arms (smaller than the astronaut). Credit and copyright, Thierry Legault.

For the STS-131 mission in May of 2010, Legault traveled to Spain, Switzerland, various parts of France, and for the STS-133 mission in February 2011, where he took the first-ever ground-based image of astronaut in spacewalk he drove to Germany, and to both the south and north of France, and between 3,000 and 4,000 kilometers.

All this driving and weeks of preparation is for an event that he never sees live with his own eyes, and usually lasts about a half a second. He uses to calculate the exact moment and exact location he will need to be to capture an event.

“For transits I have to calculate the place, and considering the width of the visibility path is usually between 5-10 kilometers, but I have to be close to the center of this path,” Legault explained, “because if I am at the edge, it is just like a solar eclipse where the transit is shorter and shorter. And the edge of visibility line of the transit lasts very short. So the precision of where I have to be is within one kilometer.”

Legault studies maps, and has a radio synchronized watch to know very accurately when the transit event will happen.

“My camera has a continuous shuttering for 4 seconds, so I begin the sequence 2 seconds before the calculated time,” he said. “I don’t look through the camera – I never see the space station when it appears, I am just looking at my watch!”

Atlantis during the STS-135 mission docked to the International Space Station, July 15, 2011. Credit: Thierry Legault.

For a transit event, he gets get a total of 16 images – 4 images every second, and only after he enlarges the images will he know if he succeeded or not.

“There is a kind of feeling that is short and intense — an adrenaline rush!” Legault said. “I suppose it is much like participating in a sport, but the feeling is addictive. I did it with a friend two years ago and now he is addicted too.”

Legault added that when he succeeds, it is a very satisfying feeling.

But Legault is not keeping the adrenaline rushes all to himself; he willingly shares his knowhow and techniques.

His website provides a wealth of knowledge about his techniques and equipment

In 2005 he wrote a book (in French) called Astrophotographie, that has sold over 6,000 copies, and he is working on getting it published in English. The book provides information on how to image constellations, stars, comets, eclipses, the Moon, planets, sun, and deep-sky objects, in accessible, nontechnical language. Legault also gives practical advice on equipment and technique, with answers to problems faced by every beginner. He also co-authored another book, “New Atlas of the Moon” with Serge Brunier, and in the March 2012 issue of Sky and Telescope, Legault wrote a detailed article on how to take detailed, ground-based images of the ISS.

Tomorrow on Universe Today, Legault will share his advice for avoiding “bad” astrophotography.

Video: Thierry Legault Captures the ROSAT Satellite Just Before Re-Entry

I was waiting for this, and I know our readers have been looking forward to seeing astrophotographer Thierry Legault’s images of the ROSAT satellite as it heads towards its uncontrolled re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere to its ultimate demise. Legault took a series of images on October 16, 2011 from France and combined them into a video. The speed of the sequences is accelerated 3 times with regard to real time (30 frames per second vs 10 fps). The distance to observer is 275 km, with the altitude of the satellite at 235 km. Angular speed at culmination: 1.66°/s.

“It looks very steady, no sign of tumbling or flares like UARS,” Legault told Universe Today via Skype.

You can compare it to earlier images taken by Legault on September 23, 2011, below.

This remarkable video was taken with a 14” Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope using a specially made tracking system developed by Legault and Emmanuel Rietsch. You learn more about the system as Legault’s website.


Legault said he drove 100s of kilometers in order to capture ROSAT, and had to deal with clouds and fog before successfully imaging the satellite.

The latest prediction put out by the German Space Agency (DLR) has the ROSAT satellite re-entering sometime between October 21 and 24. This is a slightly narrower time window than the last prediction, which lasted until October 25. We’ll keep you posted on when and where the pieces of the satellite might fall. Legault told Universe Today that he is hoping ROSAT will provide some nice fireworks right over his location in France!

The video below, taken by Legault on September 23, 2011 at 04:36 UT shows ROSAT at an altitude of 284 km, with distance to observer at 458 km. Angular speed at culmination: 0.94°/s.

See Legault’s website for more information and images.

Must See Video: Falling NASA UARS Satellite Observed While Still in Orbit

The huge Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) will be plummeting to Earth in an uncontrolled re-entry this week, but here’s an incredible video from astrophotographer extraordinaire Thierry Legault who shot footage of UARS with his 14-inch telescope. Legault was in Northern France (Dunkerque) last week to attempt to capture views of the satellite, and had success on September 15, 2011 between 04:42:14 and 04:44:02 UTC, just 8-9 days before its atmospheric reentry, when it was at an altitude of only 250 km. The tumbling, uncontrolled nature of the satellite is obvious in this video, and various components are visible, such as the body itself and the solar arrays.

NASA has now refined its prediction for when this bus-sized satellite will fall to Earth. The 20-year-old defunct satellite now has a predicted re-entry Time of about 20:36 UTC on September 23, 2011, plus or minus 20 hours, according the the UARS Reentry Twitter feed. So, heads up!


This is a day earlier than previously anticipated. Pieces of the 6.5-ton satellite are expected to survive the fiery plunge and hit our planet, but NASA does not know exactly where. There was word today that increased activity from the Sun has hastened the decay of the satellite’s orbit.

Legault said his images show the satellite at a 316 km distance to the observer. The angular speed at culmination: 1.36°/s. The speed of the sequence is accelerated two times with regard to real time (20 fps vs 10 fps). The satellite is tumbling, perhaps because of a collision with satellite debris a few years ago.

Here is the equipment Legault used: Celestron EdgeHD 14” Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope (at a focal length of 8500mm) on automatic tracking system, as described on this page. Camera: Lumenera Skynyx L2-2.

Thanks to Legault for sharing his video and images with Universe Today! See more info at Legault’s website.

Map of the UARS orbital path. Credit: @UARS_Reentry Twitter feed.

NASA says there are about 26 components that are big enough to survive and make it down to Earth, the largest weighing more than 150 kg (330 pounds.)

What are you chances of getting hit by debris? Nick Johnson, chief scientist with NASA’s Orbital Debris Program, said that numerically, it comes out to a chance of 1 in 3,200 that any one person anywhere in the world might be struck by a piece of debris. That might sound high, but if you factor in that there are 7 billion people on Earth and that a large part of Earth is covered by water, the liklihood is actually very small. The chance that any one person on Earth getting hit by debris has been estimated at about 1 in 21 trillion.

We’ll provide more updates on the UARS story. For those who would like to catch a last glimpse of UARS streaking across the night sky for yourself should check Heaven’s Above or SpaceWeather’s Satellite Tracker for flyby times in your area.

For more information about this satellite’s uncontrolled re-entry, see our earlier article detailing UARS.

Backyard Science: How You Can Make a Difference


It’s a great time to be an amateur astronomer!  Nowadays, “backyard” astronomers armed with affordable CCD imagers, high-quality tracking mounts, inexpensive PC’s and the internet at their fingertips are making real contributions to Astronomy science.

How are people in their backyards contributing to real science these days?

Consider that in 1991, the Hubble Space Telescope launched with a main camera of less than 1 megapixel.  (HST’s array was 800×800 pixels – just over half a megapixel).   Currently, “off-the-shelf” imaging equipment available for a few hundred dollars or less easily provides 1 megapixel or more.  Even with a “modest” investment, amateurs can easily reach the ten megapixel mark. Basically, the more pixels you have in your imaging array, the better resolution your image will have and the more detail you’ll capture (sky conditions notwithstanding).

With access to fairly high resolution cameras and equipment, many amateurs have taken breathtaking images of the night sky. Using similar equipment other hobbyists have imaged comets, supernovae, and sunspots. With easy access to super-precise tracking mounts and high-quality optics, it’s no wonder that amateur astronomers are making greater contributions to science these days.

One spectacular example of amateur discoveries was covered by Universe Today earlier this year. Kathryn Aurora Gray, a ten year old girl from Canada, discovered a supernova with the assistance of her father and another amateur astronomer, David Lane. The discovery of Supernova 2010lt (located in galaxy UGC 3378 in the constellation of Camelopardalis) was Kathryn’s first, her father’s seventh and Lane’s fourth supernova discovery. You can read the announcement regarding Ms. Gray’s discovery courtesy of The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada at:

Often times when a supernova is detected, scientists must act quickly to gather data before the supernova fades. In the image below, look for the blinking “dot. The image is a before and after image of the area surrounding Supernova 2010lt.

A before and after animation of Supernova 2010lt. Credit: Dave Lane

Before Kathyrn Gray, astronomer David Levy made headlines with his discovery of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9. In 1994, comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 broke apart and collided with Jupiter’s atmosphere. Levy has gone on to discover over twenty comets and dozens of asteroids. Levy has also published several books and regularly contributes articles to various astronomy publications. If you’d like to learn more about David Levy, check out his internet radio show at, or visit his site at

Hubble image of comet P/Shoemaker-Levy 9, taken on May 17, 1994. Image Credit: H.A. Weaver, T. E. Smith (Space Telescope Science Institute), and NASA
The International Space Station and Space Shuttle Atlantis transiting the sun. Image Credit: Thierry Legault

Rounding out news-worthy astronomers, astrophotographer Thierry Legault has produced many breathtaking images that have been featured here on Universe Today on numerous occasions. Over the past year, Thierry has taken many incredible photos of the International Space Station and numerous images of the last few shuttle flights. Thierry’s astrophotography isn’t limited to just the sun, or objects orbiting Earth. You can read more about the objects Thierry captures images of at: You can also read more about Thierry and the equipment he uses at:

Performing science as an amateur isn’t limited to those with telescopes. There are many other research projects that ask for public assistance. Consider the Planet Hunters site at: What Planet Hunters aims to achieve is a more “hands-on” approach to interpreting the light curves from the publicly available data from the Kepler planet finding mission. Planet Hunters is part of the Zooniverse, which is a collection of citizen science projects. You can learn more about the complete collection of Zooniverse projects at:

Sample light curve data. Image Credit: Zooniverse/

Another citizen science effort recently announced is the Pro-Am White Dwarf Monitoring (PAWM) project. Led by Bruce Gary, the goal of the project is to explore the possibility of using amateur and professional observers to estimate the percentage of white dwarfs exhibiting transits by Earth-size planets in the habitable zone. The results from such a survey are thought to be useful in planning a comprehensive professional search for white dwarf transits. You can read more about the PAWM project at:

Transit simulation. Image Credit: Manuel Mendez/PAWM

One very long standing citizen project is the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO). Founded in 1911, the AAVSO coordinates, evaluates, compiles, processes, publishes, and disseminates variable star observations to the astronomical community throughout the world. Currently celebrating their 100th year, the AAVSO not only provides raw data, but also publishes The Journal of the AAVSO, a peer-reviewed collection of scientific papers focused on variable stars. In addition to data and peer reviewed journals, the AAVSO is active in education and outreach, with many programs, including their mentor program designed to assist with disseminating information to educators and the public.

If you’d like to learn more about the AAVSO, including membership information, visit their site at:

Sample AAVSO light curve plot. Image Credit: AAVSO

For over a decade, space enthusiasts across the internet have been taking part in [email protected] The official description of [email protected] is “a scientific experiment that uses Internet-connected computers in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI)”. By downloading special client software from the [email protected] website at, volunteers from around the world can help analyze radio signals and assist with SETI’s efforts to find “candidate” radio signals. You can learn more about [email protected] by visiting

The projects and efforts featured above are just a small sample of the many projects that non-scientists can participate in. There are many other projects involving radio astronomy, galaxy classification, exoplanets, and even projects involving our own solar system. Volunteers of all ages and educational backgrounds can easily find a project to help support.

Ray Sanders is a Sci-Fi geek, astronomer and space/science blogger. Visit his website Dear Astronomer and follow on Twitter (@DearAstronomer) or Google+ for more space musings.

A Space Shuttle On the Sun, One Last Time


If you’re like me, you were probably wondering if photographer Thierry Legault would have the opportunity to photograph space shuttle Atlantis in orbit during the final mission of the shuttle program. Regular UT readers will recall that Legault has taken several amazing images of the space shuttle and International Space Station from the ground with his specialized equipment, with many spectacular views of the spacecraft transiting across the face of the Sun or the Moon. It took a mad dash across Europe, but he was successful in chasing down the shuttle, capturing it crossing the face of the Sun several times, and once — just in the nick of time (above) — just minutes before the Atlantis’ final deorbit burn.

“I went to Czech Republik, then Germany and now I’m in Netherlands, on my way back to Paris,” Legault said in a note he sent to Universe Today. “The last transit has been taken Thursday morning, just 21 minutes before the deorbit burn, therefore there are chances that is the last image of a space shuttle in orbit.”

Earlier in the mission, he was able to catch the ISS and shuttle just 50 minutes after Atlantis undocked from the station, so his images capture historic moments of the final shuttle mission.

In addition, this stunning view shows Atlantis docked to the ISS:

Atlantis during the STS-135 mission docked to the International Space Station, July 15, 2011. Credit: Thierry Legault.

Legault said this solar transit of Atlantis docked to the ISS was taken on July 15th from France (Caen, Normandy). Transit duration: 0.7s. ISS distance to observer: 520 km. Speed in orbit: 7.5km/s (27000 km/h or 17000 mph).

Atlantis appears on four images as it crossed the Sun, in this composite image. Credit: Thierry Legault. Click for larger version

Four images of Atlantis crossing the face of the Sun taken on July 21st 2011 at 08:27:48 UT, and combined into one image. The images were taken just 21 minutes before Atlantis’ deorbit burn, from the area of Emden, NW Germany. Transit duration: 0.9s. Distance to observer: 566 km. Speed in orbit: 7.8 km/s.

A Calsky image below shows the last miles of Atlantis in orbit with the transit site in Europe, the deorbit burn position and the landing site in Florida. Image courtesy Thierry Legault.
Atlantis and the ISS side by side, 50 minutes after undocking. Credit: Theirry Legault. Click for larger version, and full version of the Sun's face.

Solar transit taken on July 19th at 7:17 UT from Czech Republik (North of Praha), showing Atlantis and the ISS side by side, 50 minutes after undocking. Transit duration: 1s. ISS distance to observer: 676 km.

Many thanks to Thierry Legault for sharing his images with Universe Today, and taking us along on the ride of his travels across Europe to capture the final space shuttle mission in a way that only he can!

See more at Thierry Legault’s website.