This is real life. Not Tron.

This amazing photo was taken by astronaut Don Pettit on board the International Space Stations—of which you can see a chunk at the top of the frame. It's part of a whole series of absolutely stunning photos that you need to go check out as soon as you have a free 20 minutes to spend staring at your monitor and going, "Woah," to yourself over and over.

Here's what Pettit had to say about the process.

“My star trail images are made by taking a time exposure of about 10 to 15 minutes. However, with modern digital cameras, 30 seconds is about the longest exposure possible, due to electronic detector noise effectively snowing out the image. To achieve the longer exposures I do what many amateur astronomers do. I take multiple 30-second exposures, the ‘stack’ them using imaging software, thus producing the longer exposure.”

Via Smithsonian, which is where you can find the rest of Don Pettit's photos.


    1. Is it just me or is anyone else horrified at what the Smithsonian did to the images, all blurry and meh…  I expected better.

    2.  Thank you thank you thank you!  I was about to complain that these wallpaper-perfect images weren’t good enough quality, but you saved me!

  1. Outrageously beautiful.  I’m really intrigued by how Pettit (and others) keep finding “uses” for the ISS in excess of its intended function.  I sense that this says something kind of important about art.  Starting to wonder if the most productive way to think about the ISS is as a staging ground for all manner of creative improvisations.

    1. Well, given that it has no useful function – quick, name three significant things to come out of manned spaceflight in the last thirty years, and I’ll spot you the repair of the (unmanned) Hubble Space Telescope (at a cost greater than replacing it) – I suppose we should be glad the members of the Tinned Monkey Project are taking pretty pictures in their spare time.

      Although, there is nothing about the taking of this picture that actually required a human component …

        1. Easy, sure. Also, untrue.

          I’d be delighted if it were true, if we’d learned something significant from putting Meat In Space (since the end of the moon missions). We’ve learned a huge amount from putting robots in space, after all. But it simply isn’t so. The science done on the international space station would be laughable if it weren’t so pathetic, and so damnably expensive, and very occasionally lethal to the participants.

          The only real excuses I’ve seen are propaganda for spaceflight (i.e. the attention given to manned spaceflight makes it possible to get funding for real space exploration, with robots; in practice, within any given year manned spaceflight tends to steal funding away from unmanned spaceflight – but the total made available might have been smaller or even zero without manned spaceflight), propaganda for science generally (the attention given to manned spaceflight makes scientific endeavors more generally seem more exciting and romantic), or that if manned spaceflight were interrupted we wouldn’t return to manned spaceflight once technical developments made it actually worthwhile. All of these arguments have some merit, or might have, but none are testable.

          But I invite you to point me to some of this “knowledge” you claim we’ve gained from manned spaceflight – in an era when unmanned spaceflight has given use immense leaps forward in our understanding of our solar system and the universe.

      1. Before Mercury, no one had thought that there was anything interesting to be seen from space. The distance, atmospheric effects, weird lighting- it would all somehow conspire to make earth observations a waste of time.  Only after the astronauts described how clearly they could see things was it considered worthwhile to put cameras up there.

        I *d0* look forward to the day when a satellite can fly that is designed to also take art pictures of the earth in addition to its primary mission. Until then, it’s going to take a human to aim and fire the camera.

      2. I often find that these types of obsequious query have the answer buried in the question.
        “…quick, name three significant things to come out of manned spaceflight in the last thirty years”.
        Yup, there it is. “..manned spaceflight…”.
        I shall leave the rest to your (*chortle) imagination.

        1. Well, no. Manned spaceflight today hasn’t significantly improved over manned spaceflight thirty years ago. They certainly aren’t accomplishing anything more.

          Space colonization, or lunar or Mars colonization, would be fantastic. But any such colonies would have to be largely self-sufficient to be meaningful, and the technologies needed for this (1) are currently lacking and (2) will be developed here on the ground. I love unmanned spaceflight, and I’ll celebrate manned spaceflight when it has something to do – whereas you appear to be ready to celebrate it merely for existing. That development awaits better heavy lifting capabilities and better biosphere technologies, at the very least; possibly also robotic mining of water and mineral resources to support the colonies.

          1. yup, you got me bang to rights.
            We need to be physically integrated into this enterprise from the get go.
            I am also a fan of astro-chicken and friends, I just think it’s really important not to distance ourselves too much.

            edit: also, apologies for being a smart ass. My internet-fu has been weak lately.

  2. I hope he does realize you can make exposures longer than 30 seconds on modern digital cameras. either by using T or the Bulb exposure…

    … not like its rocket science or anything.

    1. He’s not talking about the ability of the “timer” to select a longer exposure, but the heat buildup on the sensor and the resulting image degradation. I expect he knows how to use the camera he has with him.



    2. You can, but sensors get hot when they’re in use, and this gives a long exposure a lot of noise.  It’s not a very uniform noise either; different bits of the sensor react differently.  So, if you do a longish exposure on a camera such as a Lumix, it automatically tries to improve things by taking a second shot with the shutter closed so it can subtract the noise pattern from the first photo.

      Additionally, with multiple images (which can be stacked very easily with a per-pixel add or max operation) you have flexibility in post-processing to decide how many exposures to combine for longer or shorter trails.

      1. The Phase One digital backs are very good at that trick, taking the second closed-shutter exposure to map noise.  They give relatively low-noise long exposures, way in excess of 30 seconds.  I know they can do 30 minutes, not sure about longer than that.  It’s very time-consuming though, one of many reasons I still like to use film for long-exposure work.

  3. I always liked Don Pettit’s Saturday Morning Science videos on YouTube.  Pure research in space is good, but having fun and doing creative things is even better.

  4. Pettit is a rockstar! He had another technique of spinning up a drill to use as a gyroscopic platform and giving the camera just enough english to keep it trained on a spot on the ground to make the pictures nice and sharp 

  5. It’s like a platform, really, really high up above the air.
    I find it difficult and delightful to knit this into my world tapestry.

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