Friday, July 31, 2009

Photos of shuttle landing | Can't you hear the thunder?

Space shuttle Endeavour let its presence known with two loud sonic booms Friday as it entered the airspace over the Space Coast. The twin roars seemed louder than usual. Unfortunately, I didn't record it this time (I did last time). Instead, I shot still images of the landing for the first time with my new telephoto lens. This first photo was taken before most people at Titusville's Space View Park had even caught a glimpse of the spaceship; I knew what I was looking for this time.

After circling around, the shuttle makes a steeper descent toward Kennedy Space Center. The view wasn't spectacular as it dropped because of yet another hot, hazy summer day in Central Florida.

Endeavour levels out as it approaches the ground. Two kayakers get a magnificent view from the middle of the Indian River.

People on the end of the pier look on or take photos as Endeavour prepares for its touchdown at 10:48 a.m. Friday. Another successful, safely completed mission for NASA.

Photo | Singed by an explosion of clouds

The weather pattern in Central Florida is beginning to shift. With upper-level air warming, the storms are likely to be tamer than we've seen this year. In addition, the movement of the almost-daily storms is more south to north than west to east. That allowed Thursday's storm to skirt along the western, inland border of Brevard County and never really threaten Melbourne or other populated areas. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the boundary of this thunderstorm. To the east, blue sky. To the west, a formation I have come to call an explosion of white clouds. It's similar to that rippling, textural definition you'd see in an orange fireball.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Video | The fastest space shuttle launch you'll ever see

Click on the "HD" button in the right corner (so it's red) to watch in high definition.

The weather inhibited my photography of space shuttle Endeavour's liftoff on July 15, with thick cloud cover and haze muddying the view from just north of Melbourne. While I drove away to get a better angle on the launch for still photos, I left my video camera on my employer's property. It recorded footage for a period before and after the launch at Kennedy Space Center, about 30 miles to the north, and I increased the speed during the editing process in Apple's Final Cut Express.

Like I said the day after the launch, the sight was a "lame" one. And the video is equally deficient of excitement, but trust me, it would be worse if it were at normal speed.

Up next: Endeavour is scheduled to land Friday at Kennedy Space Center, and I plan to watch from across the Indian River Lagoon in Titusville. It will be the first landing for which I'll have a telephoto lens, so I'll shoot for some still images.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

For station-shuttle viewing, the people - not the photo - are memorable

It's impossible to distinguish any features of space shuttle Endeavour docked with the International Space Station as they fly over Monday night.

After previous failed attempts to photograph space shuttle Endeavour and the International Space Station as they moved across the sky in unison, I finally witnessed the spectacle Monday night with about a dozen other people at Lake Washington in Melbourne. Yet, it was another failure in the photography department.

Those earlier tries were thwarted by either cloud cover or a forgetful brain. And for the last possible viewing time for Endeavour-ISS on Monday (they undocked Tuesday), the resulting photo when I did see the attached spaceships streak overhead is not even recognizable. Either atmospheric distortion or a poor choice of camera settings produced a clumping of colorful swirls through my 500mm zoom lens. One cannot even make out the station's solar arrays, which are apparent in this earlier image.

But what was notable Monday were the other people who were on hand for the celestial event. They piled out of three vehicles and gathered on the shore of the lake just a few moments before the 9:53 p.m. flyover, which lasted only a minute. Though one cannot tell from this image, the real-time viewing was brilliant. The station-shuttle complex was the second-brightest object in the night sky, as it progressed from the horizon in the northwest to a height of 54 degrees in the west, making it seem as though it were overhead. It had more of a reddish tinge than what I'm used to seeing.

I had spotted the fast-moving ball of reflected sunlight before the other people. But after the first person in the group pointed it out, other members oohed and awed. For many, it was their first time.

It's nice to see other people's enthusiasm for such things. With a recession still afflicting the United States, NASA has had its share of detractors when it comes to budgeting for space missions. But there's just something about seeing the space station - and, in this case, the shuttle - as it moves at 17,200 mph in orbit around Earth. It's difficult to explain. And even more difficult to illustrate in a photo.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Photos | Free chicken for a year? When cows fly!

Chick-Fil-A has caused a stir in Brevard County this week with special promotions for its opening of a location in Viera, just north of Melbourne. Its first 100 customers Thursday received coupons for free meals for a year. And on Saturday, a helicopter dropped 200 stuffed cows, in spurts of about 50 each, onto hundreds of mostly children and their parents waiting in a parking lot. One of the 200 was the sacred cow, of sorts, that also was the ticket to free chicken and waffle fries once a week for 52 weeks. Above, the first division of bovine paratroopers transit the sun on the way to the ground - or in some cases, the trees or the top of the hotel next to the restaurant. A lone hand reaches desperately.

Two Chick-Fil-A fans spot the chopper as it arrives on the scene Saturday afternoon. It circled twice before a man in the co-pilot's chair started shoving the cows out the door.

I ran into a co-worker, Mike, who is holding his son as he points out the daredevil maneuvers in the sky. The drop was around the time of day, about 4 p.m., when the clouds start pushing in. On Saturday, there was a clear contrast of white and blue.

In his final drop, the man shoving the cows to certain hard landings finally judged the wind correctly. Most of these stuffed animals made it to the ground instead of the top of the Holiday Inn. At right, someone stands on a covered entrance to the hotel.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Beautiful lightning and its ugly, destructive power

This was one of many strikes near my workplace of FLORIDA TODAY. The rain, though, was a pain, severely hindering my photographic attempts.

A firefighter strings caution tape around the backside of a house in Suntree, just north of Melbourne, that was destroyed Friday night after being hit by lightning. The family inside and all of their pets made it out unharmed.

hose_0065(Left: A hose curls on the pavement in front of the burned-out home.)

Friday's violent weather brought a destructive close to an otherwise placid, drier-than-normal workweek in Central Florida. The only violence before Friday was precipitated by human beings. People's and Mother Nature's combined forces yesterday, though, meant for an ugly day.

My own workday started perfectly: An incredible photo opportunity presented itself. The details will be shared once they become available and once the opportunity itself solidifies. As budding photographers such as myself know, however, nothing is guaranteed.

Dinner at work was pad Thai, a favorite meal I haven't enjoy in years. I guess my deficient knowledge of Florida's Asian-food scene has shied me away from noodles and peanut sauce, and pushed me toward burgers and fries. The shrimp-and-egg mixture was a tasty relief from the norm.

Work itself was going well. I got ahead of schedule, all while eying the Doppler radar that showed a nasty storm north of the Space Coast in Volusia County. There, residents started snapping photos of the clouds, which formed a waterspout. Television news outlets later reported that a tornado had touched down, damaging more than 150 homes in the Port Orange area. If it weren't for work, I would have been there taking my own photos.

Before long, the skies over Brevard brewed their own rip-roaring boomer. The lightning started flashing in the distance, and I kept tabs on the system until it got close enough for photography. When it did, the rain had begun, an unwelcome condition for shooting nature's electricity.

My first attempts came under the cover of a gazebo in the backyard of the newspaper's headquarters. It sits over a pond and is one of the highest points around, making it conceivable that lightning would seek it out. But I took my chances.

Later in the evening Friday, as it became apparent that lightning would become a news story for Saturday's edition, the copy desk needed a photo to illustrate that. The photographer on duty was trying desperately to get a shot outside a West Melbourne home where a break-in had led to two people getting shot, one fatally. It was the third such fatal incident this week in Brevard, in addition to a shooting in which two people were hit on a porch. Residents here - north to south - are experiencing a frightening spike in crime. I'll keep my doors locked.

An unsuccessful try near the gazebo.

The published photo - raindrops, lens refraction and all.

Trying to eke out something usable for the local section of the newspaper, I took my camera to the employee steps of the building. There, Frank, a does-it-all tech guy at FLORIDA TODAY, stood outside under an overhang, as rain dripped around its edges. The thunder boomed.

"I love this stuff," Frank said.

Finally, someone echoed my enthusiasm for thunder and lightning.

hole_0105(Left: A firefighter sprays water upward through a hole in the roof of the home that was destroyed by lightning Friday. The family inside and all their pets made it out.)

I tried some shots underneath the overhang, but it was useless. I had to get further out into the action. Frank fetched his umbrella and offered to hold it as I operated my camera. "Better one than both of us," I told him, referring to, of course, the potential for a direct strike.

With my Nikon D90 wrapped in plastic that protected most of its controls, I ran to the edge of the patio area and plopped down the tripod. The umbrella wasn't doing much good: The camera lens still got speckled with raindrops, and the umbrella itself was featured in the top corner of each usable photo I managed to get out of this storm. My boss thought one would go nicely in the newspaper, so I adjusted it using the camera's onboard editing program, and that was that.

Meanwhile, the storm still seethed. Its destruction became apparent. I had smelled smoke earlier but was unaware that a house not far from the newspaper was burning after a direct strike from lightning. After work, I sought out the fire scene, only to be told by a sheriff's deputy that I had missed the rescue of a dog that had been trapped inside for the duration of the inferno, a detail that was not included in Saturday's newspaper. The family's cat and the family itself made it all right, too.

"A crazy night," the deputy said in reference to the fire and the earlier deadly shooting. "A crazy week."

And then, when I thought all was said and done, I returned home to four young-looking gentlemen being handcuffed in the driveway of my apartment complex, with four police cruisers nearby.

Nature and man need to just settle down a bit. Take a break. Eh, but then what would I photograph?

This just shows the destruction to the garage of the home. The entire structure was gutted. It's a loss for the family, but they still have their own lives, and their pets.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Brevard County's lone Five Guys location now qualifies as fast food

I snapped a shot with my cell phone as the workers assembled burgers, all in plain view of their customers.

I've been meaning to update this for some time. All the posts about stormy weather must have gotten in the way. But with the drier air this week in Central Florida, it's high time.

Five Guys, the burger joint that I shamelessly promoted after its West Melbourne opening in March, finally qualifies as fast food. When I first visited Brevard County's first location, the wait for my bacon cheeseburger was nearly 20 minutes. Nevertheless, my recommendation led dozens of my co-workers to eat there, and for that, I still think Five Guys owes me something. Free food for a year, maybe?

For my most recent visit, I stood at the counter for no more than five minutes before my burger and fries were slid over to me in a grease-soaked paper bag, a trademark of the franchise.

So, if you live on the Space Coast and haven't check it out, please do. If you don't live around here, there's a good chance a Five Guys is already near you or is coming sometime soon, especially on account of its aggressive expansion.

Long wait or not, a trip to Five Guys is never a waste of time.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Panorama | Sunbathing the Maine way at West Quoddy Head

Click on the above image for a full-size panorama. I'm doing some freelance work that requires the use of a PC, and while perusing its hard drive today, I found some old photos of West Quoddy Head State Park near Lubec, Maine. This was before I really knew what I was doing in taking photos for panoramas. They were snapped without a tripod and were horizontal; the ideal is to stitch together vertical images for a proper panorama. During a visit to Maine in August last year, my family visited the park, the easternmost point in the United States. More photos are here. In this image, New Brunswick, Canada's Campobello Island, perhaps best known as the summer retreat of Franklin D. Roosevelt, is to the left, and a hiking trail is to the right. In the rocks is a park-goer enjoying the sunshine fully clothed, as it was sort of chilly that day. And atop the rocks is my father, who, camera in hand, is scanning the horizon of the cool Atlantic Ocean.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The sun offers a reprieve from humidity

My main objective in this shot was to capture the sun's magnificence. To achieve that, I shut down the aperture to f/18 and set the shutter around 1/1000th of a second. Ideally, I would have gotten closer to the water to catch the reflection, too, but like I say below, there was a fence between the two of us.

As far as storms go, the last two days have been quiet in Central Florida. Once a thick deck of clouds moved out to sea Monday, we've had blue skies and less muggy weather, making it feel cooler. Today's photo was appropriately taken in Suntree, an unincorporated community north of Melbourne, as the sun started to dominate the cloud cover toward the end of the day yesterday.

For this image, I held the camera above a fence, which was taller than me, and used my Nikon D90's Live View feature, allowing the photographer - in this case, yours truly - to compose the shot through the LCD screen. Consumer-grade point-and-shoot cameras have this feature, but until a few years ago, it was nonexistent on more professional digital SLRs. This is my first camera with such a shooting mode, and it comes in handy for situations like these. This is the first time I've used it in earnest.

The sunshine looks to be short-lived, however. The tropics are beginning to stir, bringing the threat of move severe weather in the form of hurricanes and tropical storms. A wave of moisture near the Bahamas appears to be the first large-scale threat of the season to Florida, though it is unlikely to develop into a cyclone. For last year's big disaster here in Brevard County, Tropical Storm Fay, I was surrounded by the serene comfort of northern Maine.

Not paying attention to one of the strongest storms I have witnessed

This wasn't even the nastiest part of the storm. That was behind me, and I didn't get a chance to shoot it.

I knew it was coming. I got the warning from the National Weather Service. I saw a large chunk of red on the radar, indicating heavy precipitation and possible hail. I had been walking outside all evening to see if anything interesting was brewing.

But work got in the way Sunday.

Deep in the process of designing a newspaper page, I was determined to finish it before leaving for a dinner break, which I would use to photograph the approaching storm. But it took longer than expected, and when I walked out the door, the sky was falling.

Clouds drooped low to the ground. Lightning bolts zipped toward the earth, one after another. I ran for my car, then sped away, trying to find a proper position to photograph the storm.

As for the shots of the system approaching, I was too late. Conceding that, my only objective was to find a spot that was free of precipitation. The rain was coming fast. So I darted across the causeway, en route for the beach to the east, where the storm was heading. There really is no other way to describe these Florida thunderstorms than to compare them to a giant spaceship - something you might see in "Independence Day" - moving slowly over land, water and palm trees.

I stopped along the causeway and snapped a shot of the clouds to the east. The real action, though, was to the west. But the trees were in the way, and I needed to reach the beach to get the right view. I hopped back into my car.

The rain came in visible sheets, stronger in some places and weaker just yards away. The wind was noticeably worse at the crests of the causeway, which are undulating bridges that are low in the middle to connect with Merritt Island, high over the two rivers - the Banana and the Indian - that abut the island and low on the mainland ends. Aside from probably one storm I experienced in Maine, in which a tornado was confirmed several miles away from my home, this was some of the most intense weather I had seen. And traveling in a compact car, there was nothing I could do than to take it slowly and to grip the steering wheel tightly.

But that wouldn't achieve my objective. To get in front of the precipitation, I couldn't play it safe; I needed to go 70 or 75 mph. And when I arrived at the beach in one piece, I breathed deeply. But at that moment, the skies opened, and the water came. The only family left at the beach struggled to load a sedan with their umbrellas, coolers and beach towels. The father opened the driver's side door just a crack, and the wind whipped it outward.

With visibility at a matter of feet, my photo opportunities had dried up.

Monday, July 20, 2009

40 years ago today, man landed on the moon

I photographed the moon a couple of weeks ago when it was just past full.

The 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing has kept journalists in Central Florida, especially on the Space Coast, very busy for the past several months. FLORIDA TODAY, my employer, has put together a Web site containing historic photographs and every single newspaper from 1969. The folks at worked diligently to digitize old microfilm versions. Check that out, and more, at We also have TV specials with our partner, WBCC, that are now available online here.

Also of note is this site http: It's broadcasting the Apollo 11 mission in real time, as it happened. After the landing today, viewers will be able to consume the content at their leisure.

Much has been said about re-energizing the U.S. space program and restoring its glory to that of the space-race days. It's difficult to envision it being that heightened. The prizes now, including Mars, are considerably more risky, especially as NASA is without a reliable vehicle to take astronauts there. And the other objective, to return to the moon, already has been done. Not to mention that our fiercest competitor then is now our bigger partner.

But with the advance of science, there is no doubt that our country can gain something from such a mission to the moon. Just being able to see the high-quality photos snapped and transmitted quickly from the moon to Earth would be thrilling and certainly a sight to see.

And if nothing else, Brevard County itself needs something to be excited about again. Because, well, this place is just too darn boring.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Time-lapse video | Storm rolls over apartment complex

Click on the "HD" button in the right corner (so it's red) to watch in high definition.

I'm still experimenting with recording the approach of storms over a lengthy period of time here in Central Florida. On Saturday, the sun hung on for much of the afternoon, allowing the heat to make for a heightened chance of a good thunderstorm.

When the sky was still somewhat blue, I set up my video camera on my front porch and pointed it westward above the apartment buildings across the parking lot. We're been locked in a pattern in which the Gulf Coast sea breeze has been more dominant, pushing all of the storms toward the east coast of the peninsula, where I'm located. The collision of the breezes from the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico is what makes Florida so stormy during the summer. I just had to hope for a thunderstorm to form, then move overhead.

Like a broken record, though, the weather did produce yet another afternoon thunderstorm. The National Weather Service warned that it would be severe.

The total length of the recording is about 75 minutes, but I have condensed it into 55 seconds. It's interesting to see the sun occasionally break through the clouds. Then, toward the end, a huge cumulonimbus storm top billows upward and outward. Unfortunately, that is when I had to change tapes, so there's a quick jump as the top of the storm builds.

At the end, the underside of the storm moves rapidly as the rain pours in sideways, which is when I had to cut the recording short.

Unless viewed in such a time-lapse video as the one at the top, the storm wasn't incredibly visibly impressive. There was some lightning, but it was of the low-frequency variety. Here is a photographic view looking south, where I think the storm was more severe.

Friday, July 17, 2009

From the Archives | Comet Hale-Bopp and a lost ambition

Hale-Bopp 2
Comet Hale-Bopp, as seen in 1996 through the 50mm lens of my Pentax K1000 film camera.

ArchivesMonday's 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing has prompted me to look back into the archives at a later celestial event, a naturally occurring one.

Remember this?

Comet Hale-Bopp was visible for much of 1996 and 1997 without any visual aid - except your eyes, of course. It passed about 122 million miles from Earth, close enough for a wide-angle lens, such as the one on my Pentax K1000, to pick it up. At the ripe age of 12, I took this long exposure featuring the dirty snowball rolling through space.

I was very interested in space and astronomy as a youngster. Living far from city lights in rural Maine made it easy to appreciate the vastness and beauty of what's beyond Earth's atmosphere.

To get even closer to what I saw in the night sky, my career ambition became an astronaut. The blue NASA flight suit that I wore during the early days of elementary school displayed that interest. Oddly enough, I don't remember getting teased for that. I should have, though.

Why I eventually chose journalism over science is beyond me.

Stuff you find on Florida roads | Umbrella almost hits car

It has been some time, but the "Stuff you find on Florida roads" feature is back. Returning from an errand during a thunderstorm Thursday, I turned into the driveway of my apartment complex and almost got nailed by an umbrella. The storm was packing some strong straight-line winds, blowing the umbrella from a common area at the complex and into my path.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Launch of space shuttle Endeavour | Well, that was lame

A streaking space shuttle Endeavour is barely visible at this magnification, so click on the above image to see the full-size version, which will give you an idea of the poor conditions for viewing the liftoff from far to the south of Kennedy Space Center.

The bottoms of the shuttle's two solid rocket boosters are faintly lit. The vehicle itself is so shrouded in clouds and haze.

After Endeavour had been delayed three times in the past week, NASA finally got a window with acceptable weather to launch the space shuttle Wednesday. Ironically, though, the cloud cover was more widespread than it was on any of those three previous days. The difference this time was that the lightning and thick, low-level clouds had already moved away.

Able to take only a short break from work, I was relegated to watching the liftoff from Palm Shores, about 30 miles south of Kennedy Space Center, as the crow flies. Thick hot-weather haze and those darn clouds typical of summer afternoons in Central Florida greatly reduced the visibility from my viewing location on the Pineda Causeway. I had pondered a trip to the beach, but the boats on the Indian River, I thought, would make for better foreground than the ocean surf.

Perhaps that was the wrong tactic, though. The engine flames were visible for less than a minute, and I managed only a wind gauge as foreground in one shot and a few boats with the faint contrail in another. The vertical shot below is the center image of the panorama on the top of this post. It was the second straight launch in which the clouds obstructed my view of the separation of the solid rocket boosters.

Even with that pitiful Atlas V rocket launch last month, I was able to crop in tightly, allowing the spacecraft to be visible in a photo. With Endeavour, when I zoomed in on the shuttle in the above vertical photo, I could faintly see the shuttle's orange external fuel tank. Nothing more. This is why I like to watch launches on my days off - so I can get closer.

As they say, there's always a next time. But with the program expected to be hung on a shelf next year, there are only seven next times left.

Discovery is next in line, though. And even if the launch is delayed by a few days, there is a good chance that it will happen at night. That would be spectacular. And what's even better? It's scheduled for Aug. 18, a Tuesday, which I will have off from work.

My fingers, toes, eyes, ears - everything - are all crossed.

Earlier this year: See, a clear-sky shuttle launch, when viewed from quite a distance, still can be beautiful. Just go here.

If Wednesday were a clear winter day, the contrail would contrast magnificently against a clear-blue sky. A fog that developed on my lens when I removed my equipment from my air-conditioned car probably didn't help these shots, either.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Panorama | Some blue, but not enough for a shuttle launch

Click on the above image for a high-resolution panorama. These were the conditions on the jetty at Jetty Park near Cape Canaveral as space shuttle Endeavour's launch attempt was scrubbed early Monday evening. This was just a minute before the postponement was announced, when all those would-be spectators filed off the pier.

Video | Time lapse shows cloud formation, scrubbing shuttle launch Sunday

Click on the "HD" button in the right corner (so it's red) to watch in high definition.

As this video shows, the sky looked pretty clear to the north, in the vicinity of Kennedy Space Center, on Sunday afternoon. But as the 7:39 p.m. launch time approached for space shuttle Endeavour, clouds moved in or formed over the Space Coast, just at the inopportune time. This is about 55 minutes of video condensed into 20 seconds and was taken from Melbourne.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Photos | Seagulls, storm, shuttle scrub make for a ... crappy day at the beach

Seeking a different angle for a shuttle launch from what I have used before, I chose Jetty Park near Port Canaveral as my viewing site for Endeavour's liftoff Monday. During the wait, I watched this girl feed Cheetos - or some off-brand - to the seagulls. And apparently, some of the Cheetos went in one end and out the other ... right onto my head. Poopy.

Two launch attempts for STS-127 had already been scrubbed during the weekend because of weather. With the typical summertime weather pattern in Central Florida, things didn't look bright Monday. And sure enough, a thunderstorm moved over the city of Cape Canaveral a few hours before the scheduled liftoff time of 6:51 p.m. Just after shooting this, I scurried it for cover.

The storm was ominous, to say the least. Most everyone cleared off the beach.

A rainbow forms off the coast, as it continues to pour.

As the rainbow persisted, the conditions brightened significantly. But once again, the weather was not acceptable for NASA. The agency scrubbed Endeavour's launch a fifth time, delaying it until Wednesday, a day I coincidentally do not have off from work. My hopes of seeing the launch from a different angle were foiled.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Panorama | The fifth time might be the charm for Endeavour

Click on the above image for a full-size panorama, which, of course, would have been better it there actually was a launch. A few people had gathered on the Banana River side of the Pineda Causeway for the launch of space shuttle Endeavour on Sunday, only to be disappointed with another scrub, this time because of that storm at the left of this image. It was the fourth postponement for this mission. I, however, am a happy man because of it: This gives NASA two chances, today or Tuesday, to get STS-127 under way before I have to go back to work - not that work is a bad thing; the view just isn't as good from there.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Photos | Caught in the rain once again

On Wednesday, it was pouring when I got work, so I had no choice but to go inside and get soaked in the process. I sat with wet pants for eight hours. On Friday, the storm was just arriving when I made it to FLORIDA TODAY. And it was a doozy. Of course, I felt the need to take some photos of it.

The clouds got really low, and the wind and lightning picked up. To get some different angles than just this same one behind my workplace, which has appeared in Offlede photos before, I left by car. But it was too late. It started pouring, and any chance at a shot was ruined. I returned to work and once again got soaked in the downpour. Another eight hours with wet pants.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Photo | The sun rises over a flooded parking lot

When I should have been sleeping, I took advantage of the rare privilege of watching the sun rise this morning. This shot was taken from the flooded grass parking lot of a Catholic church near Wickham Park in Melbourne.

A snapshot of the space station - solar arrays and all

ISS zoomed
You wouldn't know what it was unless I told you, but this really is the International Space Station.

As the International Space Station made another pass early Wednesday morning, I again attempted another time lapse, like these from Tuesday night. But when I realized that the lights of the city were causing too much interference, I changed tactics.

I quickly switched out my wide-angle Tokina for my telephoto Sigma, then focused the 500mm lens on Venus, one of the brightest objects in the night sky. With the lens focused, I could then try to shoot the space station as it zipped overhead at 17,200 mph.

There was no time to affix the camera to a tripod. At its highest elevation of 54 degrees, the station was its brightest. With less atmospheric distortion at the greater height, I knew that would be my only chance to photograph the station with a few quick snapshots.

The resulting image above is tightly cropped and enlarged. There's an incredible amount of interference surrounding the spacecraft, but you can still make out its central portion and, essentially, two adjacent blobs, each made up of two pairs of solar arrays. The fourth and final set was delivered after a beautiful launch of Discovery in March.

In the future, I might try a tripod, then combine all the resulting images in this free program called Lynkeos, which is meant for this type of astrophotography. Supposedly, it eliminates atmospheric distortion by layering different exposures. Sounds like a lot of work. Or, I might just get a telescope. And I might start playing the lottery in a desperate attempt to fund all of this.

space station no crop_0025
This is the original image. Even with my lens zoomed in at 500mm, the space station is just a tiny speck.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Space station photos don't show just a boring streak of light

International Space Station road_0039
In this first frame, a meteor shot downward just to the left of the space station. It was so faint, however, that I can't really see that the camera picked it up. The space station also is the faintest in this photo, just because I closed the shuttle too soon for fear of overexposing the image. The aperture was nearly wide open. This is looking to the west-southwest.

International Space Station dark_0040
As the station appeared from the cloud cover, it became more visible. It reached a maximum elevation of 48 degrees (it rose from 10 degrees above west-southwest, then descended to 11 degrees above north-northeast when it disappeared).

For two weeks, I've been waiting for this week, when the International Space Station was to be visible for up to five minutes several times from Monday through Friday. The lengthy period of its appearance and the reasonable time of day - around 9 p.m. - made it an especially attractive opportunity to see NASA's multibillion-dollar spacecraft fly overhead. It's frequently seen for only a couple of minutes in the early morning hours, about 5 o'clock.

NASA publishes the station's periods of visibility on this site about two weeks ahead of time. I often check it, so I was well aware of the upcoming celestial event.

Photographing the space station from the ground - with consumer-grade equipment, mind you - is a feat that has been pulled off, but one that frequently results in a boring image. What's so special about a timed exposure with a dark sky and a streak of white across it? I didn't think my own effort, which I attempted for the first time Tuesday night, would result in anything different.

But I was wrong. Luckily.

Thunderstorms have blanketed Central Florida this week, creating thick cloud cover. Thinking that would have blocked the space station from eyesight, I gave up on a chance to shoot it Monday. I was wrong, though, and when I walked outside my apartment, I saw the bright star-like object moving across the eastern sky. Unfortunately, I couldn't fetch my equipment in time.

So on Tuesday, I was prepared, no matter what. The station's 9:29 p.m. appearance was supposed to begin in the west-southwestern sky and end in the north-northeast. To get far away from the lights of Brevard County's cities, I traveled westward on U.S. 192, which connects Melbourne and Mickey Mouse's home. Out in the middle of nowhere, among the swamps and swarms of mosquitoes, I found a dirt road that was fenced off but offered enough room for my car.

It was more than an hour after sunset, but the clouds on the western horizon still glowed slightly with orange. About 10 degrees above the horizon, the point at which the station was to first appear, the sky was mostly clear. It was shaping up to be a little more interesting than just a streak in the dark.

I looked down at my cell phone clock. It was 9:29. Where was it? I looked up, and there it was. I opened the shutters on my two cameras, and let them do the work. The photos that turned out the best were taken with my Nikon D90, equipped with a 11mm Tokina lens, which makes the station look kind of small. Maybe I'll try more of a zoom in the future.

In hindsight, I should have left the shutter open for a longer span to get a longer streak. Even so, I'm pretty happy with these.

International Space Station fence_0041
For this photo, I followed the space station into the northern sky, and you can see the fence blocking the road in the foreground. I took one shot after this, but the station faded as it again drifted behind the clouds on the horizon.

International Space Station close_0007
This is one of the shots taken with my D40 backup camera. With the camera's 18mm lens, the streak is a little more visible.

Photos | Gators, pigeons and the people who feed them

I was driving by Promenade Park in Melbourne on Monday afternoon, so I decided to stop to see if there was anything happening. I spotted this small alligator in Crane Creek. An orange and yellow medical office building on the opposite shore was being reflected onto the creek's surface, surrounding the gator with colors similar to its own skin.

The main attraction for the people, though, were the pigeons. They were scouting out the riverside boardwalk from the electric wires.

Then they flew around a bit.

And finally, they landed, attracted by the loaves of bread that a large family brought with it to feed them. The building in the background is the one that provided the colors in the alligator shot above.

The birds grouped around whomever had the most bread. So when they got startled and flew, it was a bit overwhelming for this girl.

Not sure why I focused on the girl in the background. In addition to feeding the pigeons, the children and adults threw bread to a school of large catfish and a few turtles that were swarming along the edge of the boardwalk. The aquatic life didn't show up well in the photos, though.

The whole family got in on the act. They also tried to throw crumbs to the gator, but it was not biting.

A pigeon has flourishes of color, especially on its throat and feet, that can be pretty.

Overhead, two planes crisscrossed, making an X in the sky. I thought it was somewhat interesting.