Spotting EUMETSAT spacecraft from Earth

Satellites travel around the Earth all day and all night making images, but a few dedicated photographers make their own images of the satellites from the ground.

The solar panels on the Metop satellites can catch the Sun and reflect it to create a bright flare for those watching from Earth. Capturing these moments has become a passion for some and a pleasant surprise for others.

Petr Nekvinda took the photo at the top of the page, an image of Metop-A over Prague in April 2013. A designer in the aerospace industry by day, he says is always looking for an opportunity to photograph satellites by night.

“Every time when there is clear sky at night I’m looking for some satellites passing over me on calsky.com or outside on my Android phone via SatTrack app,” he says.

“If there is a satellite promising good magnitude and in a heading which I can reach with my camera, nothing can stop me!”

For people who speak camera, Petr uses “a D7000 camera with Sigma 17-50mm F2.8 EX DG OS HSM lens on Giotto’s tripod with ballhead”, and takes the images from his own balcony.

The camera settings he needs to use depend on the time of day – he sets the camera to infinity focus, chooses an F-stop and ISO, and does a white balance. Using the information he has got online, Petr figures out where to point the camera, and then it’s time to wait.

“For shutter release I can use a wireless programmable device, but for me is enough to set it to bulb mode and wait for the satellite in the sky. Then I simply start capturing and when the satellite passes, stop. For the International Space Station it can take more than a minute, for smaller object only few seconds.”

Fellow Flickr-user Eok Gnah had a more unexpected encounter with satellites when he first took photographs of them.

“I spotted satellites in my images when I was trying to picture star trails,” he says. “I thought there were ‘hot’ pixels or some other kind of error in the photograph. It was only when I thought about it some more that I entered the time and date of my photographs in my virtual planetarium programme and realised they weren’t mistakes or UFOs!”

“I tried to name the satellites according to their position and uploaded them to Flickr. By doing that I saw that others have done it as well, so it can be done by intention as well, not only by accident!”

He recommends using a picture stacking programme to help bring out the pixels where the satellite flare is.

Eok’s images were a pleasant surprise to him, but Marco Langbroek has spent most of his life fascinated with the night sky and has seen all sorts of satellites.

“In the 1990s I had a strong interest in meteors,” he says, “But during our meteor observation sessions we also saw a lot of satellites, and these started to capture my curiosity. We frequently saw the Russian space station Mir during meteor sessions and I remember seeing the Mir in a close pairing with a Soyuz approaching it, very spectacular and captivating!”

Marco is part of a group of dedicated amateur observers who track satellites, including classified ones, and calculate their orbits. He’s also interested in human spaceflight and has watched the ISS, Soyuz spacecraft and – until its retirement – the space shuttle.

“I like to observe anything related to the ISS programme – the supply modules like ESA’s ATV, Japan’s HTV, SpaceX Dragon etc. The rendezvous techniques in space are fascinating and it is a marvellous sight to see two spacecraft chasing each other closely in the approach for a docking.”

He has imaged both Metop-A and Metop-B from his base in the Netherlands.

Marco is an archaeologist and sees parallels between his professional work and his hobby:

“Geostationary satellites will still be there as a token of our presence two billion years from now. Just like stone tools in the ground, they are archaeological artefacts.

“‘Space archaeology’ is a new and upcoming field, and by photographically and otherwise documenting what is up there, I am doing some basic ‘space archaeology’ fieldwork, certainly where the otherwise ill-documented classified satellites are concerned. It is part of documenting the material legacy of human presence and activity.”

About the Author

Ruth McAvinia

Ruth McAvinia

Learning Zone Writer