Stunning photo captures the space station traversing the moon in rich detail

Thierry Legault pointed his camera at the night sky and waited for the International Space Station to pass in front of the moon.

Then, like a water strider on a pond, the Earth-orbiting laboratory skated over the pool of moonlight. He had half a second to shoot. Click on.

Legault took a spectacular photo of the spacecraft on January 18, with the crisp, mottled moon in full form behind it. The silhouette of the space station is so clear that observers can make out a faint grid pattern on its solar panels. The attached SpaceX Crew-3 spacecraft, which brought NASA astronauts Raja Chari, Tom Marshburn and Kayla Barron, as well as European Space Agency astronaut Matthias Maurer in November, is easily identifiable.

The image is among the most detailed snapshots ever taken of the space station passing in front of the moon. Astronomers call such an event a “lunar transit”. Bill Ingalls, a senior contract photographer for NASA Headquarters, was so impressed he retweeted it.

“There’s a lot of adrenaline going on, kind of like a total eclipse, waiting, getting ready, waiting for the moment,” Legault told Mashable. “There’s a kind of suspense. It’s so fast you can’t see it visually.”

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Legault is an engineer and astrophotographer who lives in the suburbs of Paris, near Versailles. City lights pollute the night sky, making it difficult to see the cosmos.

For the photo of the moon he took last month, Legault traveled alone, 250 km south, to a remote location in the countryside of Bourges, France. It was a foggy evening and he feared the weather was his enemy. But he continued his stay, spending half an hour looking for the right place to set up his equipment.

Then, a stroke of luck: the fog cleared, just when the spacecraft was supposed to pass overhead.

“There’s a lot of adrenaline going on, kind of like a total eclipse, waiting, getting ready, waiting for the moment.”

He turned on his astronomical video camera, recording about 10 to 15 seconds before anticipating the crossing. Legault uses transit-finder.com space station to help with time and location calculations.

But he didn’t know if he had captured the photo until he reviewed more than 400 images taken with his specialized astrophotography instrument, a CFF telescope. The exposure time was 1/6,000th of a second, he said. Any longer and the spacecraft would have blurred. It flies at around 17,000 mph, or 5 miles per second.

The anticipation was unbearable as he waited for his computer to extract all the files. Then, as he sifted through the images, there it was: the station and the moon appearing sharper than ever, despite the moon being about 1,000 times farther away.

The intricate photo, which shows Tycho Crater in the moon’s southern highlands, caught the eye of former Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield.

Ingalls, who himself took photos of the space station’s lunar transit, said he enjoyed reading Legault’s photo story, which is as rich in detail as the photo. The information shared by Legault about his location, equipment and technique allows people to understand his process.

The photo is “superb,” ​​Ingalls said. “It’s pretty crisp and clear,” he added.

Legault wrote three books on astrophotography — The New Atlas of the Moon with Serge Brunier, Astrophotographyand Secrets of Astrophotography — and has published numerous articles on his profession. When he started his first book, he decided to use only his own photographs, which forced Legault to expand his portfolio: eclipses, comets, auroras and everything else in the night sky.

This included solar and lunar transits of the space station. In 2005 he shot his first and continued from October to February when the moon is high.

This session was by far his best, he said.

Astrophotographer Thierry Legault captured the International Space Station in lunar transit on January 18, 2022.
Credit: Thierry Legault

Despite Legault’s experience, there were some skeptics dotted among fans on social media when he posted his photo. They doubted its authenticity.

“I’m trying to digest how you did it,” a person identified as Gregory Santoni said on Twitter. “I’m going to have my mathematician girlfriend do the numbers to see if the ISS can be seen in such clarity and detail from 450km away…You must have spent hundreds of thousands of dl on equipment. The best money you’ve ever spent.”

“I did it, so it can be done,” Legault replied. “Anyway, will a million dollar racket make you (sic) beat Federer or Nadal?”

Opponents can be frustrating.

“It’s like people who don’t believe that man went to the moon or whatever. In a way, it’s a bit disappointing because I’m trying so hard to succeed,” said- he declared. “In another way, I take it as a compliment because they think it’s so hard it might be impossible. So, OK, I’d rather take it positively.”

The space station, the length of a football field, is the largest spacecraft in orbit and has an acre of solar panels to power it, reflecting sunlight. It is often visible speeding across the night sky. You can find out when and how to see the space station using online tools, like spotthestation.nasa.gov.

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Jack C. Nugent