About this Website
This site is for anyone who wants to know what it is to observe and photograph all kinds of artificial satellites from Earth with (backyard) telescopes. Over the past decade I have produced a lot of telescopic images of spacecraft in orbit. Throughout the years, the images were used for different purposes ranging from websites and books to television shows.This website presents more then a decade of active spacecraft imaging and shows a selection of my best projects. The site is constructed in such a way that it can be used both as a guide to spacecraft imaging and for anyone who just wants to know what it is to observe objects like the Space Shuttle, active satellites or rocket debris with telescopes from the backyard. Please note that this website is not just a summary of all of my spacecraft imaging work produced in the past, but it is a display of only my very best work in this area.
About the Author
I'm an independent science journalist for different media and I'm writing about everything related to aeronautics and astronautics. For example, I can photograph certain spacecraft from the ground as background for a story but I'm also researching false explanations and myths about how wings generate lift. I'm sometimes asked by organisations or satellite companies to do - if practical - ground-based imaging as they want to see how their product or experiment actually looks in space or even to get confirmation of deployment. Initially I was fascinated by the early Space Shuttle flights and later discovered astronomy. I was trained as a professional photographer living in the Netherlands. My two greatest interests, astronomical observation and photography were combined and finally I have practiced almost every possible field in astrophotography once, before finally getting into spacecraft imaging.Though, I always had a preference for dynamic objects such as the planets and for high contrast and high resolution imaging.
Contact address for inquiries and assignments: E-mail: email@example.com
New observations are regularly posted on my Twitter account: @ralfvandebergh
A brief History into Satellite Photography
At the time when I started imaging spacecraft only very few observers were active in the field so much of it still needed to be explored, an exciting time with much pioneering work involved. After having tried out almost every known area in astrophotography, from high resolution imaging of sunspots to comet photography but mainly active as a planetary photographer, I developed an increasing interest in spaceflight imaging and switched to that field around 2006. A small group of amateurs around the globe was exploring the technique to capture images of the International Space Station using backyard telescopes and cheap webcams. The advantage of live-imaging on screen in combination with much better sensitivity of webcams - compared to classic film - changed possibilities for amateurs dramatically, initially in planetary imaging. For decades, high resolution spacecraft imaging with amateur telescopes on classic film-emulsions was almost impossible due to the difficulties of the fast moving objects and the lower sensitivity of film, but also due to the small field of view required for a high-resolution image in combination with the high angular speed. The available video-mode of webcams and astronomical ccd-cameras is the key to successful easy spacecraft imaging with telescopes because the objects can be tracked with secondary scopes at low magnification and the videoframes can be reviewed as still images afterwards.
Equipment and Technique
All images were taken with a 25 centimeter (10 inch) aperture Newtonian reflector operating fully manually. Tracking is realized using a smaller secondary scope at low magnification. Most images displayed on this site are taken using a commercial JVC camcorder mounted at the eyepiece. This camera has produced extaordinary detailed ISS images, and displayed the color in the NASA logo on the wing of the Space Shuttle over a distance of almost 400 kilometers. Many smaller satellites are photographed in good detail and especially in their subtle colors if present. Currently I'm experimenting with high-quality monochromatic astronomical ccd cameras to further improve signal-to-noise ratio in single-frame spacecraft images which looks very promising. The monochrome ATK-1HS camera attached to the telescope in the image below was used in 2007 to capture images of Space Shuttle missions STS-117 and STS-118.
All of my spacecraft imaging work is realized by fully manually tracking the objects with the telescope. This is simply done by pointing a small secondary tracking scope at the object while a video module is taking images at the main scope. The easy satellite-tracking method used by me and other astrophotographers has an advantage and a disadvantage. The advantage is that you can point your telescope at every (unprepared) moment at any object and start immediately capturing images without to deal with software etc. The disadvantage is that the efficiency of usable frames with this tracking technique is minimal. Therefore, most of my images of the ISS and smaller satellites are single frames. Only in a few occasions, the number of usable frames is a bit higher but even then there is still a limited number of frames available with the result that the gain in signal-to-noise ratio is only minimal. In less-then-favorable seeing conditions, I have experienced that it is not recommended to combine just a limited number of frames (for example 10 frames) as the differences in the images due to air turbulence can not be flattened out like in planetary imaging were hundreds or thousands of frames are used.
Venus photographed in front of the sun, during the transit on June 8, 2004 with a 6 inch FH-refractor and Sony TRV740 videocamera, a few years before my first satellite images
Pioneering ISS, Satellite & Debris Imaging
I was already fascinated by spaceflight in my early years as an astrophotographer. I remember taking (trail) images of the space station Mir - the predecessor of the ISS - with a camera with normal lens on black&white film which I developed and printed in my own darkroom. As a telescopic spaceflight-photographer I witnessed the later construction-years of the ISS and several flights of the Space Shuttle to the station. After every assembly-mission to the ISS, I observed the big additions such as modules and trusses in my images after every new imaging-session. From the ground I witnessed the addition of the Columbus and Kibo modules and the last 3 solar arrays and several other additions. Even astronauts were filmed through the telescope while they were working outside the space station. As technique improved, smaller artificial satellites were captured successfully as well. In the last years I photographed all kind of spacecraft, from weather-satellites to planetary probes that were lost in Earth orbit. One of my most interesting accomplishments is the pioneering work of imaging and display of tumbling spent rocket upper stages.
What to do with Spacecraft Images?
In some occasions, ground-based images of spacecraft can be useful to provide information about for instance solar panel deployment or other important stages in post-launch operations. In 2009, my images of the first Japanese cargoship HTV-1 provided first views of this new spacecraft in space, days before it was captured by the cameras on board the ISS. Several of my spacecraft images have been reproduced in spaceflight-related books and on websites and in TV documentaries over the years, including the space agencies ESA, NASA, JAXA and Roscosmos.
Other Websites Ralf Vandebergh
Professionally Flying with Google, a Virtual Aerodynamic Experiment