On Tuesday June 9th, at 9 PM I boarded Southwest flight 902 at New York LaGuardia International Airport headed to Chicago Midway International Airport. Upon taking my seat on the right side of the plane, the future astronaut in me thought,

“Hey, what if the ISS is going to pass over me while I am flying?”

So I bought the Southwest in-flight wifi, logged on to heavens-above.com, and sure enough there was going to be an ISS pass over the northeastern United States around 10 PM EDT. Currently the time was 9:30 and we had just taken off from LaGuardia. I estimated that by 10 we would be somewhere over Central Pennsylvania (very rough estimate, at the time). I went to Google Maps, clicked near the center of Pennsylvania, and it spat out Williamsport as the location I had clicked.

So I went back to heavens-above.com and added a new location to my account, …Williamsport, PA…. Checked for ISS passes, and boom – there was going to be one beginning at 10:00:27 PM EDT, appearing in the WNW sky (azimuth 302 degrees), rising to 13 degrees max altitude straight north (azimuth 2 degrees), and disappearing in the ENE sky (azimuth 63 degrees). Here is what I saw on heavens-above.com.

After checking all those, the time now was 9:40 PM EDT. I always take nonstop gate-to-gate time-lapse movies now when I fly places because it’s a fun thing to watch later on. I have a playlist here of those on myYouTube channel that you can watch. Anyways, so I usually take these timelapses, but I figured that a shot at capturing the ISS from the plane was reason enough to cancel this timelapse. (never been done before, other than NASA, who would photograph ATV reentries).

The time is now 9:45 PM EDT:

Test shot.

Camera: GoPro Hero 4 Black Edition
Mount: GoPro Suction Cup Mount

Settings:
Night-Lapse Mode
30 seconds
Sharpness HIGH
WB 5500K
ISO 800
EV -0.5

DCIM100GOPROG0046687.

It was pretty overblown and you see the light from the cabin was putting this purple-ish haze over the photo. Another test shot – after holding my hoodie over the window to stop that from happening.

Test shot.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR6683.

Perfect, ok I got the haze to go away but the image was still dark.

By this time, after fumbling with the GoPro app connecting it to my iPhone and taking tons of other test shots it was 9:58 PM.

We had begun to fly over some clouds, which was disappointing because I wanted to see the trails of city/house lights before in the final shot but – oh well. at 10:00 PM EDT, I let my GoPro loose and didn’t stop it for 10 minutes, right when the ISS was forecasted to set. This was our flight path and route information. Obtained from flightradar24.com.

While flying at altitude 39,996 ft, at a speed 416 kts, and heading of 277 degrees W, I grabbed the microSD card from my GoPro and after combining the 12, 30 second exposures together in StarStax, and processing it through Adobe LightRoom I had my final product.

ISS from 40,000 ft

I still am not sure if all those dots at the top of the image are stars/milky way/etc or just camera noise, but either way, I love how it looks and how the orange/blue mesh across the photo. The International Space Station offical Twitter page RT’d/quoted my tweet of the image the night after…pretty cool!

And when it came down to it, my estimate also ended up being very close. At 10:03 PM EDT, I was over Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, not Williamsport. But the cool thing is that they are only an hours’ car ride apart – I was close!

That is how you rush to capture the International Space Station when you are flying at 40,000 ft above the Earth. Follow me on social media for more cool updates like these!

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-Trevor Mahlmann

Update: I, thanks to Max Fagin, a fellow Boilermaker and astronomy friend of mine who just sent me this, can confirm that the apparent stars at the top of this image are indeed just that: a combination of stars and the milky way.

Thanks Max for confirmation on that!

My story has been picked up by several news organizations around the world!

Read them here:

PetaPixel
This Guy Photographed the ISS from an Airplane at 40,000 feet

Gizmodo
Aspiring Astronaut Photographs the ISS from 40,000 Feet Up

Metro UK
‘Shooting star’ is actually a picture of the International Space Station taken from a plane

Daily Mail
Man who wants to be an astronaut captures incredible images of MOVING space station and constellations – from his PLANE WINDOW

The Weather Network
Here’s What the ISS Looks Like When Shot from an Airliner

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