The European Space Agency (ESA) have just released a dazzling series of pictures taken with the new “NightPod” on the International Space Station, capturing images of cities at night.
Astronomers often curse the light pollution that plagues the night sky and masks the views of the stars above. However, the sight of the intricate sprawl of city lights at night when viewed from above is still something to behold.
Taking a good picture at night can be difficult as longer exposures are needed to allow the camera to collect enough light. On Earth, using a tripod can circumvent this, but such an approach is impossible on the space station. Even if the camera could be kept completely steady, the image would still be a blur as the station whizzes around the Earth at a speed of seven kilometres per second.
During the MagISStra mission last year, astronaut Paolo Nespoli managed to take several impressive night-time pictures by moving his camera and his hand to compensate for the motion of the space station.
This is no easy task, and so ESA collaborated with the Dutch company Cosine to find an easier solution. This solution is called “NightPod,” and it automatically tracks a point on Earth and keeps the subject of interest in the centre of the frame so that it stays in focus. It can be programmed to take pictures automatically for up to six hours, and it compensates for the motion of the ISS once details of the orbit and altitude are input into the system.
“The astronauts are enthusiastic about using NightPod,” says ESA’s Massimo Sabbatini. “The images are sharper and have more detail than images from previous missions. By combining consecutive images from NightPod, we can use software techniques to enhance the images even more.”
The NightPod system doesn’t solely have to be used for imaging cities. It was created to be adaptable, and so the astronauts aboard the ISS are already thinking of turning away from the Earth and taking pictures of stars.