The day was inexplicably huge, chaotic, and violent. It emits high-energy radiation into space, some of which falls on the International Space Station orbiting Earth.
The ISS orbits our planet 16 times a day. With the right telescope, from the right location, you can see it passing overhead. And for just a few precious milliseconds, the astronaut-staffed space laboratory will occasionally zip across the face of the sun.
Photographer Andrew McCarthy That split moment was recently captured in a stunning image that took 12 hours to compose, three telescopes to acquire, and two flat tires along the way. It may look like a picture, but it’s actually a mosaic of thousands of pictures.
So, can you spot the space station in this picture?
Here’s a hint: The space station is next to a sunspot — a region of the solar surface that appears dark because it’s cooler than the surrounding area.
“It almost disappears from the sunspot,” McCarthy told Insider.
The station looks like it’s on the surface of the sun, but that’s because it’s so far away from us: 250 miles above Earth.
Still don’t see it? Let’s zoom in a little.
The space station is a simple silhouette against the swirling plasma of the sun.
As the sun becomes more active, that super-hot material shoots out into space more often, sometimes toward Earth, in explosions called solar flares or coronal mass ejections.
In March, solar flares caused the Northern Lights, aka the aurora borealis, to make an unprecedented appearance as far south as Phoenix, Arizona. But they can also knock out power grids, black out radio signals, push satellites out of orbit, confuse GPS, and even destroy space station technology.
McCarthy didn’t experience any tech issues from the solar eruptions, but he had his own problems taking this photo. It requires a balance of perfect timing, accurate physics, and a lot of persistence.
Stranded in the desert chasing the space station
The space station often passes between Earth and the sun, but to get a good picture McCarthy needed it to be directly overhead.
“Otherwise, the space station would be lower on the horizon and smaller,” he said.
He mentioned the dates and the exact time it would pass through the Arizona desert about two hours from his home. The first time, he loaded hundreds of pounds of equipment into his car and drove out to the exact spot he had calculated. He adjusted his telescopes. The sky is clear. He was ready to take the photo.
At the moment of the space station’s transit — less than half a second as it crossed the sun — an ominous cloud rolled over and blocked the view.
McCarthy tried again another day. While driving, his tire burst. Another attempt to hijack the space station and the sun failed. But he was not stopped.
He replaced the tire, hoping that the rest of them would last a little longer, and returned to the desert for the next transit.
The space station zips through the day like a fast-moving needle in a haystack
It was 100 degrees that day, McCarthy said. He stopped and arranged his things on the side of the road. Telescopes have too small a field of view to capture much detail, so he had to take hundreds of tiny snapshots of every part of the solar surface. He will stack and stitch them together to form a mosaic for the final image.
“Under bright sunlight, I’m looking at this laptop screen and trying to figure out, on a fairly featureless day, where I should be pointing my telescope,” McCarthy said.
He used the sunspots as a visual cue, knowing the space station would pass in front of them.
“I plan my position on Earth based on where the [International Space Station] will travel by that particular sunspot,” he said. “As long as I can get that sunspot in my field of view, I can get the ISS as well.”
In the background, McCarthy wanted to capture the fiery drama of the sun’s chromosphere, the thin layer of plasma between its visible surface (the photosphere) and the outermost layer of its atmosphere (the corona). In this layer, the sun’s plasma reaches roasting temperatures of over 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit — so hot that its hydrogen emits a reddish glow, according to NASA. That’s the chromosphere light McCarthy wants to capture.
In images of the chromosphere, the sun looks like “a furry ball” because of all the plasma movement, McCarthy said.
But the space station shows up in visible light. That’s why McCarthy needed three telescopes. One captures the “hydrogen alpha” emissions of the chromosphere. The other two captured optical light to resolve the space station, as its shadow silhouette stood out against the uniform brightness of the sun’s outer atmosphere.
His telescopes captured about 230 images per second.
“If I hadn’t shot at a really fast rate, I would have really missed it,” McCarthy said.
But he took dozens of raw images of the space station’s photosphere, like the one below, so he could stack them together to get the clearest possible snapshot of the big satellite.
Meanwhile, the hydrogen alpha telescope took tens of thousands of close-up images of the sun’s surface, to piece together like a quilt.
As McCarthy drives back from the desert, another tire blows out. This time, when he got home he replaced all three old tires.
“Luckily it didn’t happen on the way there,” he said. “At least I got the shot this time.”
While it’s fun to find the space station in this photo, McCarthy doesn’t like how it’s put together.
“From a composition standpoint, I think I could have done better as an artist with how I framed that last shot. So I’m going to follow up with another one and I think it’s going to be better, McCarthy said.
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