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Taking night-time pictures from the ISS

Naples at night

11 April 2012
ESA astronaut André Kuipers has installed ‘NightPod’ on the International Space Station. NightPod is an aid for taking night-time pictures of the Earth.

Any amateur photographer knows the problems of taking pictures at night: the low shutter speeds needed to capture enough light make images prone to camera shake. Blurry and unsharp pictures are the result. Professional photographers use tripods to steady their camera and take clearer pictures.

The International Space Station orbits Earth at 7 km per second, so using a tripod is not an option for night-time photography! Even if the camera is perfectly still, the Station moves so fast any images of Earth taken at night will still look blurred.

Athens as seen from ISS
Athens, seen by Paolo Nespoli from ISS
ESA astronaut Paolo Nespoli took many breath-taking images of our planet at night during his MagISStra mission last year. He had to estimate the correct speed to move his camera and compensate by hand, a difficult task at the best of times.
Nightpod mounted on Cupola mock-up
To help astronauts take better pictures, ESA and a Dutch company developed NightPod. This motorised tripod compensates for the motion of the Space Station by tracking single points on Earth automatically. The subject stays centred in frame so the final image is in focus.

Astronauts enter data regarding the Station’s orbit and attitude and then NightPod can start taking pictures. It can even be set to run on its own for up to six hours!

The Netherlands at night
The Netherlands
NightPod has been designed to be adaptable, and astronauts on the Space Station are already thinking of using it to look the other way, into space, in order to take images of stars.

Check out ESA’s Flickr account and follow us on Twitter for more images as they come in!

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