The activities described below took place in 2012, but my account of it was not posted until 2018
As I mentioned in a previous page about my visit to the space station simulator, I have known Don Pettit since before his first flight to the ISS on Expedition 6. Don is not your "everyday" astronaut, seen by the public as the Right Stuff test pilot type. He is instead a natural born spaceman, someone who is completely at home in space and revels in the joy of exploring and doing research in a place few people can go. He constantly seeks out new and interesting things to do in space and loves to share the uniqueness of the phenomena and experiences he encounters. It is through this exploratory attitude that Don jumped on an idea that I proposed before his first flight in 2002.
Here are the basics of my idea. I have been a satellite observer since 1958. We can see satellites in space because they are illuminated by the Sun while we on Earth are in night time shadow. Over the years of satellite watching, I have wondered could an observer on the satellite see me? We have seen marvelous photographs from space that reveal cities and other evidence on our existence on this planet. But I continued to wonder if someone viewing from space could detect the presence of individuals. Perhaps military spy satellites can resolve individual people, but can evidence of a person on Earth be seen with the naked eye from orbit? Thus the idea of shining a bright light toward the space station and having an astronaut look for it came to mind. Then in late 2002, my friend Don Pettit was chosen for Expedition 6 to the ISS. I discussed the idea with him and he was intrigued, and further suggested the light should flash on and off repeatedly so it could be discriminated from other background lights visible on Earth.
My ace in the hole for pulling off a "Flash the Space Station" event was that I am one of the few people who have direct communication with Don while he is orbit, and he wanted to try this project to see if it could be seen from space. Through my daily contact with him, we could plan and schedule things in real time as weather might interfere and the ISS orbit is periodically raised, changing advance visible pass predictions.
At this point, I'll digress my story to show a downside of being able to chat with a spaceman in orbit. As we all know, the Shuttle Columbia was lost while Expedition 6 was in orbit. Don and his crew mates on the ISS not only lost good friends and colleagues, they lost their ride home when the rest of the Space Shuttle fleet was grounded. Somehow the press found out I had contact with Don in space and I was bombarded with requests to set up interviews with with the ISS crew about the Columbia tragedy. I was appalled at the brazenness of these attempts to get back door access to the ISS crew at a time when they were grieving the loss of good friends. My answer was not "No", but "Hell NO! I'm not going to breach Don's trust so you can go behind NASA's back!" I was not a happy camper.
The long and short of it was that eventually the only Expedition 6 ISS pass where a flash attempt could be made occurred about 18 hours prior to Don's perilous recovery descent to Kazakhstan aboard the ISS Soyuz "lifeboat". I decided not to burden Don with a flash attempt at that late date and we would try it again on a future flight.
Don launched again to the ISS for a short two week stay in 2008 where he was the principle for installing the "coffee maker", as he calls it... better known as the water recycling machine that now recovers and processes much of the on board waste water for reuse. His schedule barely allowed time for sleep, much less fun things like chasing flashes from Earth, so again the flash project was delayed until a future flight.
In December of 2011 Don Don launched to ISS as part of the Expedition 30/31 crew and would be aboard for six months. This time we were ready with some real firepower to zap the ISS. My plan in 2003 had been to gather as many people as I could, each equipped with a "million candlepower" Q-Beam-style flashlight, and have them flash the station in unison while Don looked for us. Now eight years later, the plan had grown. Every evening on my way home from work, I pass the Sky-View Searchlight Company off Loop 410 in San Antonio. As an astronomer who hates bright lights in the night sky, I usually mumbled and epithet as I drove by. Now I realized that Sky-View might be my best friend!
I enlisted the help of Kieth Little, then the outreach coordinator with the San Antonio Astronomical Association, and we proposed a lunch meeting with the owner of Sky-View. Its amazing what you can get for a cold beer and good Texas tacos as the gentleman was intrigued by our idea to use one of his searchlights to signal the space station. He said yes and donated the use of one of his small Ad Light units that weigh about 100 pounds. Plans now got into high gear. Don was in orbit and a fantastic evening ISS pass that would place Don with his back to the Sun as he viewed our area in Texas was coming on Saturday evening March 3, 2012. Robert Lozano offered us the use of his observatory, located about 40 miles north of San Antonio, as a dark site to set up the flash project. We expanded the project to include the Austin Astronomical Society as well as the San Antonio Astronomical Association. Everyone was invited to participate in something that had never been done before, flash an observer aboard a satellite in space.
Email dumps from the ISS occur only several times a day, so Don and I agreed in advance that if he succeeded in spotting our light, he would call me immediately by telephone from the ISS (Yes, the can do that from the space station.) Because cell phone service was spotty at Lozano observatory, a special land line was installed so Don could ring us up upon success.
On March 3, 2012, 50 astronomers from San Antonio and Austin gathered at Lozano Observatory. Many brought their own powerful lights to help with the flash project. The evening was stunningly clear and not too chilly. Ron from Sky-View brought out not one, but two of their Ad Lights, each capable of throwing an 800 million lumen beam. Additionally, Keith Little rigged up a 200 milliwatt blue laser on a scope-sighted gun stock style mount so he could beam the laser at the ISS along with our searchlights. (Many press accounts say that a one watt laser was used for the flash attempt. This is incorrect, we used a 200 milliwatt blue Wicked Laser unit. After our success at flashing the station, Wicked Lasers subsequently gave a green one-watt unit to each of the project principles. I treat that laser like a loaded gun!)
Sky-View swore their small but stunningly powerful searchlights would operate off a standard 110V wall outlet. I was skeptical... after all, the dimmer, huge, trailer mounted anti-aircraft searchlights we are accustomed to required a large generator to power them. Ron with Sky-View was adamant... use a 110v 10amp wall outlet for each light. I had visions of the monster lights tripping an observatory circuit breaker just as the ISS appeared, so my friend George Cooper, owner of Cooper Equipment in San Antonio, brought out one of his company's generator-equipped service trucks to power the lights in case me fears were true. Placing some trust in Ron's familiarity with his product, the searchlights were plugged into separate observatory outlets about a half hour before the ISS pass, and to my amazement, they worked perfectly. Ron explained to me some of the proprietary company technology Sky-View uses to gets such a brilliant beam with so little power. It was amazing. After I was satisfied the searchlights worked fine, the loud service truck generator was shut down.
The searchlights required a few minutes to slowly build up to maximum brightness, thus they could not be turned off and on like a regular light. Each searchlight was therefore operated by two-person team, one to aim the light at the ISS, another to block the light with a big piece of plywood in order to periodically flash the ISS. As the searchlight operators practiced maneuvering the lights during twilight, I climbed up on the observatory roof with a loudspeaker to coordinate the timing of the flash sequence.
At the proper time, the ISS popped over the horizon and I directed the searchlights toward it. As the station slowly gained elevation above the horizon, I let the light operator practice tracking the station for about a minute, then began a continuous flash-block-flash-block sequence at about three second intervals. At the same time, Kieth Little zeroed in on the station with his scope sighted laser. Aircraft spotters made sure no aircraft were within 30 degrees of our beams. Over the next several minutes, the lights tracked the ISS until it entered shadow on the opposite side of the sky. Then it was over! I was surprised how easy it had been for all light crews to track the station and flash in sequence. I had high confidence this had all worked.
Now I waited for Don to call on the phone that I cradled in my lap as I sat on the observatory roof. And I waited, and waited.... After 20 minutes, I came to the inescapable conclusion that we had failed, there was no call because Don saw nothing. Most people who joined our effort were disappointed, but had fun nonetheless. But I was crushed. I had dreamed of this flash effort for nearly 10 years and now it was apparent that it did not work, even after beaming over a billion and half lumen beam at the space station. If anything, we should have fried the paint off the darn thing! After everything was packed up, I went home to a restless sleep.
The next morning, I was still grumpy and disappointed, and not enjoying my Sunday morning coffee. Out of habit I clicked on my email and there was message from Don. I expected it to be a post-mortem with analysis of why we failed in our flash attempt. But it wasn't! We had succeeded better than I had dreamed we would! He and the station commander both saw the whole thing! Don further explained that as he tried to call me on the phone, the ISS lost Ku band communication, the only of the ISS's many com links that carried the telephone traffic. He couldn't call me even though we succeeded.
I sat there in a combination of slack jawed amazement and joy! Don forwarded the photos he took of the San Antonio/Austin area during the flash period and there we were, plain as day! (Photos seen in the links at the bottom of this page) Don further related that they first saw the searchlights during the non-flashing period when the light crews were simply practicing their aim at the moving space station. At that point, the ISS was 900 miles away. The commander had asked Don if the lights were supposed to be flashing. And just then we began the flash sequence, confirming they indeed saw us at a distance equal from Dallas to Chicago! Throughout the pass, Don equated the brilliance of the searchlights as equal to his on-orbit view of the planet Mars. Internal reflections from the ISS cupala windows was a problem, but by design we used an ISS pass that put the Sun at Don's back and minimized glare.
I was thunderstruck at well it had turned out, but saddened that the success hadn't been shared with everyone at the observatory the previous evening. I went down my email contact list and selected
100 astronomy friends from all over the world and forwarded Don's flash photos to them. Read what happened next in
|The two searchlights used for the Flash the Space Station project were supplied by Sky-View Searchlights in San Antonio, Texas. Each unit produced an 800 million lumen beam, was about three feet high, weighed less than 100 pounds, and ran off a 10 amp 110V outlet.||The beam produced by the blue 200 milliwatt Wicked Laser used in the flash project spread to about one mile wide at the station's altitude. Considering the ISS travels at five miles per second, a steady aim was mandatory. The unit was mounted on a rifle scope-sighted wooden beam braced by a... frankly, I don't know what the heck that is.|
|Operating each searchlight required a two-person team. One person manually aimed the searchlight by sighting the ISS down the visible beam. Another person cycled the lights on and off at two second intervals by occulting the beam with a sheet of plywood.||In this image, the searchlights are off while the laser, directed by Keith Little, continuously tracks the ISS. In addition to searchlight and laser operators, two teams of airplane spotters made sure no aircraft were within 30 dgerees of the beans aimed at the ISS.|
|Both the laser and the searchlights were suprisingly easy to aim at the moving ISS. These searchlight beam photos were taken by Robert Stepp, a member of the San Antonio Astronomical Association.||The ISS passes over Jupiter and Venus while being tracked by both the laser and searchlights.|
|Don Pettit's view of Texas north of San Antonio while the searchlights were off, but the laser still visible.||Don's view when the searchlights were turned on (bright blue light at right center). He lickened the searchlight's brightness at orbital altitude as equivalent to his view of the planet Mars.|
|The principles involved with the Flash the Space Station project; from left to right are George Cooper, owner of Cooper Equipment in San Antonio, Keith Little, outreach coordinator for the San Antonio Astronomical Society, Robert Lozano's son and Robert Lozano, owner of the observatory where we flashed the station, Joyce Lynch, then president of the Austin Astronomical Society, myself, Robert Reeves, and the gentleman from Sky-View who brought the searchlights to Lozano Observatory, I only remember him as "Ron".||Fearing that the power required to run the searchlights would overload the observatory circuit breakers, George Cooper brought one of his company's generator-equipped service trucks. It turned out each light worked flawlessly while plugged into an observatory wall outlet,|
|This animated GIF shows Don's view of central Texas during the flash project. San Antonio is on the left, Austin on the right, with IH-35 joining them with New Braunfels and San Marcos between. Less well defined US 281 extends from San Antonio to the upper right (north). The winking bright blue light about one San Antonio diameter north of the city is us shining the lights at Don.||This map generated by the Heavens Above web site details the ISS pass to the west of San Antonio just after sundown on March 3, 2012. For the flash project to succeed, the ISS had to pass west of the searchlight site so Don would not be blinded by the setting sun, which was still visible at the ISS's altitude.|
After the initial disappointment when I thought the project didn't work, then the joy is finding that it did work after all, I settled into thinking that we just pulled off something really darn cool and had fun with my buddy in outer space. As I emailed Don's flash photos to the selected folks on my email, I felt happy we had succeeded in doing something no one else had ever done before... and I had no illusions that it could not have happened without Don's enthusiastic willingness to help on his end of the view.
What I never expected was the batspit crazy reaction to our success. I found the photos I released had sped around the world faster than Don was flying in orbit. This concerned me about the legalities because they had not yet been officially released by NASA, only sent to me directly from the ISS. Suddenly, my simple share the joy message was forwarded many times over and was latched onto by various media outlets. People were calling me up for commentary for their news outlets and my fellow flash crew members were quoted in print on many outlets. A rather nice YouTube video of the flash event appeared. Other groups called me for advice on how their astronomy clubs could do similar activities. I was shocked to find web page after web page (examples in the links below) featuring the story of our flashing success. Air and Space magazine even called me and did a half page article about the project in their print edition. I have to admit I was caught off guard by all that.
Now six years later, I still think the flash project was one of the neatest things I have dreamed up, ranking up there next to my bringing Pranversa Hyseni to the USA in 2017 for her four-month astronomy ambassador tour. Don and I visit as much as our distance apart across Texas allows and we are contemplating what kind of fun we can have next time he is orbit.
The following links show the original .JPG images that Don downlinked to me the morning after the flash project. The originals are not spectacular and these dark .JPGs do not have much data to process, but they do show we hit the space station with our beams at a distance equal that from Dallas to Chicago! Since the ISS was still in sunlight during the flash period, some images show reflections on the cupala windows and the window meteorid covers are visible. One even shows portions of the approaching ISS sunset.
The following links show a sampling of the online reaction to our success in flashing the space station.
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