There is a reason the phrase "shooting in the dark" refers to things that are difficult to do -- and night photography is no exception.
To account for low-light image scenarios, a photographer needs a steady tripod, but aboard the International Space Station, a traditional tripod isn't going
to cut it. Thankfully, the European Space Agency, or ESA, developed NightPod for the crew's cameras.
This astronaut photograph of Liège, Belgium, at night was taken using the NightPod camera mount aboard the space station. The mechanism allows astronauts to
capture images of the Earth at night with greater clarity and control than previously possible from orbit.
"The challenges of low-light photography from orbit -- for example, the likelihood of blurry images because of the ground motion -- have always frustrated
astronauts," said Cynthia Evans, International Space Station associate program scientist for Earth Observations.
"Over the years, astronauts have experimented
with different solutions, including high-speed films and manual tracking to compensate for the ground motion.
The NightPod camera mount allows the crew to successfully track the Earth using low-light camera settings."
This image taken on Dec. 8, 2012, with the European Space Agency, or ESA, NightPod camera mount, shows the city of Liège,
Belgium, as it appears at night from the vantage point of the International Space Station. (ESA/NASA)
NightPod incorporates an ESA Nodding Mechanism, which is an electro-mechanical mount system for digital cameras designed to compensate for the motion of
the station relative to the Earth. This high-tech, motorized tripod can compensate for the more than 17,000 mph (27,000 kph) speed of the station and the
motion of the Earth below—no easy feat!
The crew enters the station's orbit and attitude into NightPod, enabling the instrument to automatically track a specific location on the ground and keep
the target in frame for optimal focus. Since the system can be set to run automated for up to six hours, the crew can literally take pictures in their sleep.
To get an idea of just how clear images using NightPod are, look at how detailed the brightly lit core of the Liège urban area appears.
It lies at the center of a network of roadways -- traceable by continuous orange lighting extending out into the rural and relatively dark
Belgian countryside. For a sense of scale, the distance from image left to right is approximately 43 miles (70 kilometers).
The region to the southeast of Verviers includes agricultural fields and forest; hence, it appears almost uniformly dark at night.
The image of Liège was acquired on Dec. 8, 2012, with a Nikon D3S digital camera using a 180 millimeter lens and the NightPod, and is provided by
CEO investigators and the Image Science and Analysis Laboratory at Johnson Space Center. The image was taken by the Expedition 34 crew.
It was cropped and enhanced to improve contrast, and lens artifacts were removed.
Installation of NightPod was completed on Feb. 24, 2012, by astronaut André Kuipers, and some of the earliest images appear in this ESA story.
The primary goal of NightPod is to take high-resolution, long-exposure digital imagery of the planet from the station's Cupola, particularly cities at night.
The city of Al Jubayl (or Jubail) is located on the coast of Saudi Arabia, along the Persian Gulf.
Image courtesy of the Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center
Other scenarios of interest include evening observations of brush fires, visual analysis of maritime and road traffic, volcano activity,
urban pollution, squid fishing and day/night transitions.
"Nighttime imagery from orbit provides an instant understanding about humanity's footprint on the Earth's surface," Evans said.
While the official NightPod mission is done, the mechanism remains on station for astronauts to use as part of the Crew Earth Observations, or
CEO, investigation. For CEO, the astronauts photograph natural and human-made events on Earth from the orbiting lab. The images record the
ground's surface changes over time, atmospheric phenomena like aurora and polar mesospheric clouds, and dynamic happenings such as storms, floods,
fires and volcanic eruptions.
Together with automated remote sensing systems on the space station, handheld camera imagery provides researchers
with data to understand the planet from an orbital perspective.
The International Space Station Program supports the imaging laboratory as part of the U.S. National Lab to help astronauts take pictures
of Earth that will be of the greatest value to scientists and the public, and to make those photographs freely available on the Internet.
Additional images taken by astronauts and cosmonauts can be viewed at the NASA/JSC Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth.
Wonderful Mobile Astronomy Apps For All Stargazers!
It doesn't matter whether you are a beginner or an experienced backyard astronomer.
It's never too late to become interested in astronomy and these superb applications can help you in your stargazing pursuits.
We have put together a selection of some wonderful applications for you mobile or ipad.
Many of the applications are free and you will be amazed how beautiful they are!
Beautiful Night Sky Timelapse
Takes You On A Journey To Astronomer's Paradise
There are not many locations left on this planet where you can still experience a dark sky like this.
Walking on the desert near Paranal between the scattered stones and boulders on the pale red dust feels like being on Mars but under the Earth sky.
It is an amazing experience to be under an ideal night sky, a pure natural beauty unspoiled by urban lights.
2012 Noctilucent Clouds Are Back -
But Their Origin Is Still Unknown
The clouds are called noctilucent or "night-shining" clouds (NLCs) and they are a relatively new phenomenon.
Previously, they were only seen over almost exclusively in Earth's polar regions, but they are now also visible
in the skies over the United States and Europe and else where. There is no doubt any more. The clouds at the edge of space are spreading...
Beautiful Star Trails Over Australian Night Sky!
These extraordinary images are an example of beautiful star trail photography!
The sky is as just gorgeous as the landscape. The colors of the star trails are almost out of this world!
Can it really get much better that this?