The sun is huge, turbulent, and inexplicably violent. It shoots high-energy radiation into space, some of which hit the International Space Station in rockets around the Earth.
The International Space Station orbits our planet 16 times a day. With the right telescope, from the right location, you can see it pass over your head. And for a few precious milliseconds, the space lab the astronauts work in will occasionally soar across the face of the sun.
Photographer Andrew McCarthy He recently captured that split moment in a stunning image that took 12 hours to compose, three telescopes to capture, and two smashed frames along the way. It may look like a single image, but it is actually a mosaic of thousands of images.
So, can you identify the space station in this picture?
Here’s a hint: the space station is located next to a sunspot – an area of the solar surface that appears dark because it is cooler than the surrounding area.
“It’s almost lost in sunspots,” McCarthy told Insider.
The station appears to be on the surface of the Sun, but that’s only because it’s far from us: 250 miles above Earth.
Still do not see it? Let’s grow up a little.
The space station is just an unassuming silhouette against the raging plasma of the sun.
As the sun becomes more active, this superheated material is repeatedly spewed out into space, sometimes toward Earth, in volcanic eruptions called solar flares or coronal mass ejections.
In March, solar flares causing the Northern Lights, also known as the Northern Lights, made unprecedented appearances as far south as Phoenix, Arizona. But they can also disrupt power grids, block radio signals, push satellites out of orbit, confuse the Global Positioning System (GPS), and even damage technology on the space station.
McCarthy had no technical problems from the solar flares, but he did have his own problems taking this photo. It required a balance of perfect timing, precise physics, and a lot of persistence.
They are stranded in the desert in pursuit of the space station
The space station passes between Earth and the sun frequently, but to get a good picture McCarthy needed it to be directly in the sky.
“Otherwise, the space station would be lower on the horizon and smaller,” he said.
He noted the exact dates and times that he would be passing through the Arizona desert about two hours from his home. At the first opportunity, he loaded hundreds of pounds of equipment into his car and drove off to the exact spot he had calculated. He set up his telescopes. The sky was clear. He was ready to take the picture.
At the moment the space station crossed — less than half a second when it crossed the sun — a rogue cloud passed past and obscured the view.
McCarthy tried again another day. On the way, his tire exploded. Another attempt to storm the space station and the sun failed. But he was not deterred.
He replaced the tire, wished the rest of the tires would last a little longer, and headed back to the desert for the next crossover.
The space station zips across the sun like a fast-moving needle in a haystack
McCarthy said it was 100 degrees that day. He parked the car and set up his equipment on the side of the road. The telescope’s field of view was small in order to get much detail, so he had to take hundreds of tiny snapshots of every part of the sun’s surface. He would stack and sew them together into a mosaic for the final picture.
“In bright sunshine I’m looking at this laptop screen and just trying to spot, in a somewhat featureless sun, where I’m supposed to point my telescope,” McCarthy said.
Use sunspots as a visual cue, knowing that the space station will pass in front of them.
“I plotted my position on the ground based on a place [International Space Station] He said, “As long as I can get that sunspot in my field of vision, I’ll also get the International Space Station.”
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 temperature of the Sun’s plasma reaches over 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit — so hot that hydrogen emits a reddish light, according to NASA. This is the light of the chromosphere that McCarthy wanted to capture.
In the chromosphere images, McCarthy said, the sun looks like a “hairy ball” because of all the movement of the plasma.
But the space station appears in visible light. That’s why McCarthy needed three telescopes. One of them picked up “alpha hydrogen” emissions from the chromosphere. The other two captured the optical light of the space station’s resolution, its shadowy silhouette standing out against the uniform light of the sun’s outer atmosphere.
His telescopes took about 230 pictures per second.
“If I hadn’t been shooting at a very fast rate, I would actually have missed it entirely,” McCarthy said.
But he took dozens of raw photosphere images of the space station, like the one below, so he could stack them to get the clearest possible shot of the large satellite.
Meanwhile, the Alpha Hydrogen Telescope has taken tens of thousands of close-ups across the sun’s surface, stitching it together like a quilt.
As McCarthy drove back from the desert, another tire blew. This time, when he got home, he replaced the three old tires.
“Fortunately, it didn’t happen on the way there,” he said. “At least I got the shot this time.”
Although it’s fun to look at the space station in this photo, McCarthy doesn’t like how blended it is.
McCarthy said, “From a composition standpoint, I think I can do better as an artist in how I frame that final take. So I’ll go after another one and think it’ll be even better.”
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