Sean Sullivan: Information for Arisia 2012

This page includes information related to the "Sky Searching" panel (satellite observation), and my photographs in the art show. Scroll down for details.

If you're seeing this as a handout at the convention, this page (with the links) is

Panel information for "Sky Searching" (Fri 8:30 pm)

Summary: Spacecraft, satellites, and spent rocket stages in Earth orbit can be seen from the ground, looking like bright stars moving across the sky. On a typical evening, several satellites are bright enough to see, even from well-lit urban environments. Most people have seen orbiting satellites, but mistaken them for airplanes. Like the planets, satellites are visible by reflected sunlight. In the middle of the night, satellites fly through the Earth's shadow, and are invisible. But in the hours before dawn and after dusk, when it's still daylight at orbital altitudes, satellites can be observed floating across the night sky. Satellites are best observed with the unaided eye - a telescope is not needed (or even helpful for the casual observer, because they move so quickly across the sky).

Satellites follow predictable orbital tracks, and predictions are available from If you're near Boston, you can use these direct links (the website calculates upcoming satellite passes on request, so the links can be used or bookmarked at any time, they're not specific to the convention):

For any satellite pass, it's helpful to go outside about 5-10 minutes before the predicted time, so your eyes have a chance to adapt to darkness, and you have time to get oriented and find the right part of the sky.

Information for some specific satellite passes during 2012 Arisia:

The new Chinese space station (still unmanned) will be visible for several minutes on Sunday evening, at about 5:11 pm, look high in the southern sky (50 degrees elevation), and it will be moving from west to east. The satellite is expected to pass just below the planet Jupiter, the brightest object high in the south, and will be somewhat fainter than Jupiter. Examples of what a satellite looks like (time exposures, the satellite is a moving point of light, and comes across in the photographs as a line):


The Iridum 90 spacecraft will flare for a few seconds on Sunday evening, 6:20:57 pm (yes, that's accurate to the second!) and is expected to be approximately 40 times brighter than the planet Venus. Look 45 degrees high in the northeast sky. Examples below:


The International Space Station is the brightest satellite in orbit, but during 2012 Arisia, ISS will be flying over in the morning sky - not too convenient for easy observation. If you happen to be awake, on Monday morning at 6:33 am, ISS will pass very high in the northwestern sky (almost straight overhead, through the Big Dipper), moving from the southwest to the northeast. ISS will be the brightest star in the sky.

Sean Sullivan: Photography in the Arisia 2012 Art Show
ENDEAVOUR (Endeavour, 28 April 2011): When the shuttle is at the launch pad, it is normally enclosed by a service structure that provides access and weather protection. A day before launch, this structure is pulled away, and the shuttle becomes visible. At this point, photographers take the iconic shot of the shuttle ready for launch. This image was from the night before the first launch attempt for Endeavour's final flight, carrying the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer physics experiment to the space station.
FINAL FLIGHT (Atlantis, 8 July 2011): This photograph was taken by a 'remote camera' located only 700 feet from the space shuttle, in a grassy field at launch pad 39-A. I set up the camera 24 hours before launch, and it was configured to automatically fire when a custom-built sensor system detected the sound of the shuttle's engines.
ABOVE THE TRANSFER AISLE (Atlantis, 18 May 2011): Inside the enormous 526-foot high Vehicle Assembly Building, the space shuttle is hoisted into mid-air, in preparation for mating to the fuel tank and solid rocket boosters. This was the final time that a shuttle was lifted in the VAB, and NASA was extremely helpful in providing access to the news media.
UNITED (Atlantis, 17 May 2011): Two months before launch, the shuttle is transported from its hanger to the enormous VAB (Vehicle Assembly Building). During this 'rollover', the shuttle is moved across a short stretch of roadway at the Kennedy Space Center. Rollover was one of the rare opportunities for a close-up view of the orbiter under daylight.
HYDROGEN SUPPLY (Discovery, 5 November 2010): An unusual vantage point from the northeast side of launch pad 39-A, from the road within the Kennedy Space Center that runs alongside the Atlantic Ocean.
HATCH (Discovery:, 22 June 2011): Three months after Discovery returned to Earth at the end of its last mission, I was given an extraordinary opportunity to take photographs aboard the space shuttle's middeck and cockpit. This is a photograph of the shuttle airlock's hatch from the inside.
CO-ORBITAL (9 September 2009): Orbiting satellites are sometimes visible as bright stars moving across the sky. In this 15-second exposure, the Space Station (above, trailing) and the shuttle Discovery (below, leading) move along the same orbital trajectory, but separated by about 250 miles, a day after the shuttle departed the station during flight STS-128. Although the spacecraft appear as lines in the photograph, that is an effect of the time exposure, they looked like moving stars. Photo from Charlestown MA.

Here's a photo narrative of my trip to Cape Canaveral for STS-135, the final space shuttle launch

For more of my photography, you can visit my Photo of the Day website