Amateur astronomer takes unique photos of U.S. space shuttle Atlantis

Photo: Libor Šmíd

Libor Šmíd, an amateur astronomer in Plzeň, western Bohemia, took some unique photos of the U.S. space shuttle Atlantis approaching the International Space Station in February. Taken within just four minutes of the Atlantis flyover of the Plzeň area, the pictures won the Photo of the Month contest of the Czech Astronomical Society.

As the U.S. space shuttle Atlantis was approaching the International Space Station on Saturday evening, February 9, 350 kilometres above the Earth, amateur astronomer Libor Šmíd was standing in the garden of his house in Plzeň, western Bohemia, with his camera and telescope ready. He had less than four minutes to take a series of photos of the docking manoeuvre – that is how long it took the International Space Station with the approaching shuttle to fly over sky above Plzeň before it disappeared over the horizon. Libor Šmíd says that timing is crucial in this kind of photography.

“What is unique about the photographs is that I managed to capture the very moment the Atlantis space shuttle approached the International Space Station. The manoeuvre is very brief – first the shuttle is too far, and after the rendezvous the shuttle is difficult to distinguish from the space station itself.”

The Czech Astronomical Society, associating both professional and amateur astronomers, voted Mr Šmíd’s photos the winner of the February Photo of the Month contest. I asked Marcel Bělík, an astronomer at the Úpice observatory in eastern Bohemia and a member of the photo contest jury, what is so unique about the Atlantis manoeuvre photos.

The U.S. space shuttle Atlantis and the International Space Station,  photo: CTK
“There is a lot of debate about taking photos of space shuttles and the space station with small telescopes but there are only a few nice shots. There are some pictures that are perhaps clearer than the one taken by Libor Šmíd but these were made with very different telescopes and under very different conditions. I think that in Europe, the photo taken by Libor Šmíd is one of the best shots of the International Space Station.”

Libor Šmíd took the photos with a Cannon digital camera. Instead of the usual view-finder, he attached a mirror telescope to it that is normally used just for looking at the stars. Is this series of Atlantis docking at the International Space Station his best ever?

“I am happy about any shot that comes out well. To be honest, I consider this photo to be a lucky coincidence because I just used a good opportunity. But many other photos I have taken – for example some diffuse nebulas – were much harder to get and also took much longer.”

You can find more photos by Libor Šmíd at his website