PetaPixel

Astronauts on the ISS Use a ‘NightPod’ to Stabilize Their Low-Light Photos

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Astronaut photographers on the International Space Station have been beaming quite a few photographs of Earth as of late, but have you ever wondered how they manage capture relatively sharp photographs of Earth’s cities at night?

The speed at which the ISS hurtles around our planet is indeed a major challenge for low-light photography, and astronauts in the past have tried to overcome it by using high-speed film or by doing some manual tracking (which is very hit-and-miss). Luckily, space shooters nowadays have a new special tool up their sleeve: the NightPod.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After discovering that traditional tripods just won’t suffice in space, the European Space Agency (ESA) developed a special new stabilization system for the astronauts called the NightPod. The device greatly increases the sharpness and clarity of photographs captured of nighttime areas of Earth.

The NightPod can help astronauts capture sharper photos of cities at night

The NightPod can help astronauts capture sharper photos of cities at night

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So how does it work? Basically, it uses a “nodding mechanism”, which is an electro-mechanical digital camera mount that automatically compensates for the motion of the space station as it orbits our planet. It’s an amazing feat, given the fact that the ISS travels at more than 17,000 miles per hour!

Photos shot from the ISS are subject to motion blur (left) but the NightPod compensates for movement (right)

Photos shot from the ISS are subject to motion blur (left) but the NightPod compensates for movement (right)

Using the NightPod does require a bit of fine tuning. Prior to using it for photography, astronauts must enter in details about the space stations orbit and altitude. After that, it’s basically a “set it and forget it” tool — the rig can automatically snap photos for 6 hours at a time.

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Here’s a sample photo captured using the NightPod: it’s a photo of Li├Ęge, Belgium captured using a Nikon D3S and 180mm lens:

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This second sample photo shows Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and was shot using a Nikon D3S and a 400mm lens:

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The NightPod first debuted on the space station back in February 2012, so many of the nighttime photos captured since then have been shot with the help of the NightPod.

No word yet on when (or if) the NightPod will be available to earthbound photographers for use in other types of photography (can you think of any?).


Image credits: Photographs by ESA/NASA, diagrams by COSINE/ASTROFHEIN


 
  • http://twitter.com/andrefk_ Andre F. K.

    That is awesome. Where can we find some of these photos?

  • val1s

    i’d imagine you could use something similar for moon photography.

  • TSY87

    awesome.

  • Alan Sailer

    The problem that the NightPod solves ie how to photograph a moving object (a city) from a moving platform is basically the same problem all astrophotographers face.

    In the astrophotographers case the moving platform is the earths surface and the solution is a tracking equatorial mount. So in essence we do have a NightPod type tracking device already commercially available.

    I have also read articles in Sky and Telescope magazine where photographers have used handwritten code to drive existing telescope mounts. They use this combination to photograph targets that are moving (satellites) from the (moving) earths surface.

    The term “nodding mechanism” is a mystery but may be a unique mechanical linkage that solves the tracking issues found only in the space station.

    Cheers.

  • Lubyanka

    I thought ‘nodding mechanism’ was a reference to those nodding plastic dogs mounted in cars, visible through rear windscreens?

  • Nienke Nijenhuis

    What country/cities does the first photograph show?
    It kinda looks like the Netherlands, but I might only see what I want to see :P

  • http://twitter.com/raminder_singh Raminder Singh

    You guys should follow Canadian Astronaut Chris Hadfield on twitter @cmdr_hadfield he posts a lot of pictures from the ISS everyday

  • http://www.facebook.com/maria.f.picon Maria Fernanda Picon

    ganial nikon!!!! como siempre!!!!!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/carin.basson Carin Basson

    Chris Hadfield posts a lot of them on Twitter (@Cmdr_Hadfield)

  • Csaba

    The same (obviously not the same but the same thinking behind…) thing is already available for years. It is called an equatorial mount. Mostly (or only) used for astrophotography. The nightpod is almost like a reverse engineered equatorial mount. :P

  • http://twitter.com/RW_Conspirator Daniel Ballard

    The parallax issue would be greater with the ISS looking at earth cities as compared to astro photography though. And I’m wondering about daytime possibilities from up there.

    But a 100 mile slider would be out of the question, (just kidding)

  • sailor

    on a boat brow

  • http://www.flickr.com/mattdavidphotography Matt King

    Or super duper long Star exposures at incredibly low ISO.