Don Pettit talks about seeing the aurora from the International Space Station

If you’ve ever gazed in wonder at some of the spectacular timelapses from the International Space Station, there’s a good chance it was captured by NASA astronaut Don Pettit. Don has photographed the Earth from space extensively during several missions to the space station. Late last year I spoke to him about one specific phenomenon that he’s imaged from orbit – the aurora. The interview has now been released by Sky at Night Magazine as a podcast and you can listen to it here, or with the audio player embedded below. And if you want to get a sense of what it’s like flying over the aurora, have a look at some of the stunning videos over at NASA’s Gateway to Astronaut Photography.

Top aurora image courtesy of the Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center. Audio courtesy of Sky at Night Magazine.

Spot the International Space Station

A view of the ISS gliding across the night sky on 24 June 2010. Credit:

The International Space Station (ISS) will be making some bright flyovers over the UK over the next week or so, providing the perfect entertainment for any of you waiting for a noctilucent cloud display to materialize. The ISS appears as a very bright point of light moving across the sky against the background stars. It’s an undeniably impressive sight, especially when it’s at its brightest sailing over silently.

The reason we see it shining is because the station’s solar panels and other components reflect the light from the Sun (which is usually below our horizon when we see it) down to us on the ground. The station is over 100 metres long, with 16 huge solar arrays for generating power (seen in the NASA image below), so you can see why it’s so bright in our night skies.

The ISS as seen by the departing Space Shuttle Atlantis in May this year. Credit: NASA

To find out when and where to look for the ISS flying over, plug your location details into the excellent Heavens Above website. It’ll then list when the space station will be visible to you, as well as give you the times and dates of other interesting satellite phenomena, that can be seen from your location, such as Iridium flares.

Much of the UK is forecast to have some sunny warm weather over the weekend. Hopefully the skies will be clear for astronomical observing of all kinds.

Spectacular spin around the space station

The ISS now has its full complement of solar panels. Credit: NASA

The Space Shuttle Discovery (mission STS-119) has just touched down at the Kennedy Space Center after 202 orbits of the Earth. It’s been in space for the past 12 and a bit days visiting the International Space Station where the shuttle’s crew has installed a new set of huge solar panels; giving the orbiting structure some more power. As Discovery undocked and parted with the ISS a few days ago it flew around the station. One of the astronauts on-board captured a high-definition video of the manoeuvre. The result is amazing. I’ve embedded the YouTube video below but it’s really worth clicking the HD button to see the much sharper footage.

YouTube video credit: NASA

Tool infinity and beyond

I’m getting a few emails asking about the toolkit that an astronaut dropped from the International Space Station last week, and whether it is visible from the Earth. Well the answer, apparently, is yes it is. According to the website the bag has been spotted by amateur astronomers and should be visible from the UK this week through a good pair of binoculars, if you know where to look.

shuttlests-126A stunning view from the Space Shuttle Endeavour (STS-126). Credit: NASA

If you haven’t been following the story then here’s a quick refresher: last week whilst on a spacewalk to repair part of the, now 10 year old, space station an astronaut let go one of the station’s toolbags and it gently floated away and out of reach. It’s now moving away from the space station all on its own, appearing around five minutes before the ISS as it crosses the sky. You can watch a video of the errant toolbag here on the Daily Telegraph website.

If you want to find out when the ISS (and the toolbag) will be flying over your site then have a look at the Spaceweather alerts page here. This story has been getting a lot of attention in the national media and press; but let’s not lose sight of the fact that the ISS has just passed an important milestone this month (10 years in space) and that this extended shuttle mission has already accomplished a great deal during its 12 days in orbit, including the repair of a urine-recycling unit (and other crucial upgrades) which will mean that the ISS crew can be doubled in 2009.