Texas Astronomers First To Successfully Signal ISS from the Ground

A bright flashing light (upper center of image) used to signal the ISS north of San Antonio was successfully caught & photographed for the first time on March 3.  Photo Credit: NASA/Don Pettit

A bright flashing light (upper center of image) used to signal the ISS north of San Antonio was successfully caught & photographed for the first time from the orbiting outpost on March 3. Photo Credit: Don Pettit/courtesy of the San Antonio Astronomical Association

The San Antonio Astronomical Association, in a combined effort with the Austin Astronomical Society, have become the first people to ever successfully signal the International Space Station from the ground – and astronaut Don Pettit, currently onboard the ISS, captured some fantastic photos on their pass over Texas to prove it.

At 7:30 PM on March 3, 2012, amateur astronomers participating in the ‘Flash The Station’ event set up at the Lozano Observatory about 40 miles north of San Antonio.  Using a one-watt laser and a 1.6 billion lumen spot light, they successfully signaled the International Space Station as it passed roughly 200 miles over Texas, orbiting the Earth at 17,500 mph.

Another shot of the flashing lights beaming from the surface of the Earth, the first successful attempt to signal the ISS from the ground.  Photo Credit:  NASA/Don Pettit

Another shot of the flashing lights (bright light at center) beaming from the surface of the Earth outside of San Antonio, the first successful attempt to signal the ISS from the ground. Photo Credit: Don Pettit/courtesy of the San Antonio Astronomical Association

“This is the first time this type of project has succeeded!  Direct visual contact by an orbiting astronaut looking for a specific blinking light on the earth,” said Robert Reeves, who coordinated the attempt with astronaut Don Pettit aboard the ISS.

Similar attempts have been made ever since the first resident crew, Expedition 1, arrived in November 2000.  Previous attempts by people around the world have been unsuccessful at ‘flashing’ the orbiting outpost – until now.

“I brought over a 90mw Green laser that I used to help signal the station.  I also brought the most powerful handheld flash light in the world called the Wicked Lasers Torch that I also used during the signalling.  Another member had a 1 Watt blue laser mounted on a turret like device with a scope that was used in the signalling as well,” said David Gonzales – a local amateur astronomer who has covered various launches from Kennedy Space Center in Florida and participated in the event.  “It was quite a neat experience looking up at the station and seeing all of the lights and lasers following it along in the dark Texas skies.  It was even more interesting knowing an astronaut was specifically looking back for us to see the signal.  Very memorable experience to be part of a world first experiment.”

Another photo of the flashing lights beaming from the ground taken from the ISS as it passed overhead.  Photo Credit: NASA/Don Pettit

Another photo of the flashing lights beaming from the ground taken from the ISS as it passed overhead. Photo Credit: Don Pettit/courtesy of the San Antonio Astronomical Association

Signaling the ISS with light from the ground as it passes overhead is a lot more difficult and complicated than most people may realize.  Besides the logistics involved, it may be very difficult for the astronauts onboard to see anything even when they are looking in the right place at the right time.

“The glare from the full sun effectively turns our windows into mirrors that return our own ghostly reflection. This often plays out when friends want to flash space station from the ground as it travels overhead. They shine green lasers, xenon strobes, and halogen spotlights at us as we sprint across the sky,” said astronaut Don Pettit.  “As often happens, technical details complicate what seems like a simple observation. So far, all attempts at flashing the space station have failed.”

The sun glare Petiit described is obvious in this image, but it did not outshine the lights signaling the ISS from the surface of the Earth.  Photo Credit: NASA/Don Pettit

The sun glare Petiit described is obvious in this image, but it did not outshine the lights signaling the ISS from the surface of the Earth. Photo Credit: Don Pettit/courtesy of the San Antonio Astronomical Association

The problem with glare from the sun on the windows of the ISS almost killed off any chances Pettit had of successfully viewing and photographing the flashing lights beaming from the surface of the Earth.

“We saw the flash just as we were over the terminator right at the calculated time of 01:27 but was not able to get a picture due to glare until 01:31.  I stopped taking pictures at 01:33 but could see the flashed well beyond that,” said Pettit in a message to Robert Reeves after the success of their attempt.  “This has to be a first and we have the pictures to prove it.”

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