Space station! Read it, hear it, or think it, and my mind is immediately transported to the scene in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope when Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke Skywalker, Chewbacca, and Han Solo find the Death Star and Obi-Wan says “that’s no moon, it’s a space station” (Lucas 1977). On Saturday morning, November 16, at 3:43 am PDT in Pioneer Park in Woodland, California, I saw both a space station and a moon with a robotic telescope that fits in a backpack!
The International Space Station (a.k.a. the ISS) is one of the greatest technological achievements of human creation. The football field sized space station is a scientific laboratory collaborative with countries around the world researching biology and biotechnology, Earth and space science, education, human space travel, physics, and technology. It travels at 17,500 miles per hour and 240 miles above the surface of the Earth completing an orbit every 90 minutes, 16 times a day!
Although it would be nice to take the Millennium Falcon for a spin and find the space station, I’m pretty sure that Disneyland’s Galaxy’s Edge keeps their Falcon guarded by the finest of the First Order. I am still hoping on taking the Falcon for a joyride one day, but in the meantime, there are other more realistic opportunities of finding space stations.
NASA’s website, Spot the Station, shows you how to track the ISS and even find out when you can see it fly over your location. Additionally, there are several computer and phone applications that will notify you when and where to look to see the ISS fly overhead (e.g. SkySafari). This is best observed at night with your naked eye. The ISS will appear as a fast-moving bright dot across the sky. I’ve witnessed this several times and it is always exciting, however, what I experienced from Pioneer Park was much cooler, but also seemingly much harder and rarer to observe.
There is another website to track the ISS, but it is not just for any typical kind of flyover. Sometimes, when the conditions and geometry are just right, an observer can catch the ISS transiting across the Moon or Sun! FYI, a transit is when a smaller object passes in front of a larger object from an observer’s point of view. Bartosz Wojczyński’s site, ISS Transit Finder, allows you to input any Earthly coordinates to find out when and where the closest ISS transit to your location occurs across the Moon or Sun.
As a part of my PhD research, I’ve recently acquired a new type of robotic telescope, the Unistellar eVscope. The eVscope is an autonomous 4.5” Newtonian-like telescope controlled via a dedicated smartphone application that fits in a backpack. It uses a CMOS light detection sensor, onboard computer, and its proprietary Enhanced Vision technology to capture more light than your average amateur optical telescope. One of my advisors, Franck Marchis, astronomer at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute, encouraged me to try and capture the ISS transiting the Moon to test its capabilities and I was successful!
To plan the ISS observation, I used Wojczyńsky’s ISS Transit Finder site and discovered that the ISS was set to transit a waning gibbous Moon near Sacramento, California at 3:43:14 am PDT on Saturday, 16 November 2019. Viewing the ISS transit the Moon is similar to viewing a total solar eclipse in that you need to be in a special narrow band of area in order to observe it.
After researching locations in the visibility path, I discovered that the transit would be visible from Pioneer Park in Woodland, California. Since the time of the event was after the closing hours of the park, I contacted the City of Woodland’s Parks Supervisor to get permission to be there afterhours. Westley and the Community Services Department graciously gave me permission, as well as contacted the Woodland Police Department to inform them that I was allowed to use the park for my observation. Officers Ted and Dalbinder even stopped by briefly during my observation to say hi and look through the eVscope.
I generally like to plan my observations with some good music to play in my wireless headset, so I downloaded an album from one of my favorite bands—the sci-fi 80s inspired Simulation Theory by MUSE. With my telescope set up in the north west area of the park, I used the eVscope’s software application to find and track the Moon while also enjoying the perfect synth accompanied soundtrack from MUSE while I waited anxiously for the predicted transit at 3:43:14 am.
The Unistellar app not only controls the telescope, but also provides live views and allows one to download images from an observation. The ISS transit was predicted to only last 0.56 seconds so in order to not miss the event, I decided to use my iPhone’s native screen recording tool, Screen Recording, which is found in the iPhone’s Control Center.
About two minutes before the predicted transit time, I pressed record on my iPhone and crossed my fingers that I would catch the transit. Just as predicted and shortly after my clock turned to 3:43 am, I saw a small shadow speed across the disk of the Moon! “Wow!”, I said to myself. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I got it! After I let my phone record the live event for a bit more time, I stopped the recording and opened the saved video from my photo roll to check that what I had just witnessed wasn’t my imagination playing tricks on me.
After successfully capturing the ISS Moon transit with the eVscope, I wanted to make a simple, dramatic, and artistic video of the event. I knew the music of MUSE would be a perfect soundtrack to this cosmic event and their digital team very graciously gave me permission to use their song, The Void, in the video. I used the raw iPhone screen recording of the eVscope Unistellar app in Adobe Premiere Pro to make my video. MUSE retweeted a post of mine on Twitter with the uploaded video to their followers around the world and it was very well received!
Next, I plan to take my eVscope on a quest to observe other transits, such as those of planets orbiting other star systems to help contribute to the SETI Institute’s search for life in our universe. We live in a new age of science and astronomy where technology is allowing us to make science fiction a reality—e.g. a backpack-sized robotic telescope controlled with a pocket-sized touchscreen computer that can find space stations and deep space objects.
With any good science fiction film, you need to have some great music for your soundtrack. Thank you to MUSE for providing this sci-fi story such a brilliant soundtrack!
“They’ll say, no one will find us
That we’re estranged and all alone
They believe nothing can reach us
And pull us out of the boundless gloom
The Void by Muse
Bellamy, M. J. (2018). The Void. On Simulation Theory. Warner Chappell Music, Inc.
Lucas, G. (Director). (1977). Star Wars. G. Kurtz (Producer). United States 20th Century Fox.
Marchis, F., Arbouch, E., Bertin, E., Harman, P., Malvache, A., Veres, P., & Zellem, R. T. (2019). Citizen Science Astronomy with the Unistellar Network: From Planetary Defence to Exoplanet Transits. Paper presented at the EPSC-DPS Joint Meeting 2019, Geneva, Switzerland https://meetingorganizer.copernicus.org/EPSC-DPS2019/EPSC-DPS2019-898-5.pdf
Marchis, F., Malvache, A., Marfisi, L., Borot, A., & Arbouch, E. (2020). Unistellar eVscopes: Smart, portable, and easy-to-use telescopes for exploration, interactive learning, and citizen astronomy. Acta Astronautica, 166, 23-28. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.actaastro.2019.09.028
NASA International Space Station. Retrieved from https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/main/index.html
Reference Guide to the INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION. (2015). In N. A. a. S. Administration (Ed.), (Utilization Edition ed.). nasa.gov. <https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/atoms/files/np-2015-05-022-jsc-iss-guide-2015-update-111015-508c.pdf>.
Unistellar 2019, Unistellar. Viewed 22 November 2019 <https://unistellaroptics.com/>.