The International Space Station (ISS) has less than a day left with SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship and its first crew of astronauts.
The capsule rocketed into Earth’s orbit on May 30, with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley strapped inside. Its launch marked the first time humans have ever flown aboard a commercial spacecraft. Since the spaceship docked to the ISS, it has stayed there while the astronauts conduct science experiments, spacewalks, and station maintenance.
On Saturday evning, Behnken and Hurley are scheduled to start their high-risk return trip — a fiery plunge through Earth’s atmosphere.
During the two months the capsule has spent in space, amateur astronomers have spotted it as it flies overhead, attached to the orbiting laboratory 250 miles above the Earth.
Engineer and former SpaceX employee David Hash even captured it on video.
Before dawn on June 29, Hash set up his telescope and his laptop, coded to instruct the lens to follow the ISS as it passed over his home in the Bay Area.
In the resulting video, below, “you’re looking up at the underside of the station as it flies almost directly overhead,” Hash told Business Insider.
The video is sped up to about 35 times the real-time speed. The Crew Dragon can be seen peeking out from the front of the station, with its large trunk section and four fins shining in the sunlight. The station’s long solar-panel arms appear blue-grey in the beginning of the video, as they reflect sunlight. Then they take on an orange glow as the panels flip around and Hash’s telescope catches the sunlight filtering through them.
“There are only a few good ISS passes each month, and the sharpest imagery comes during the minute-long period when the station is almost directly overhead,” Hash said. “Many hours of coding, tuning, and calibration go into making the telescope aim and track exactly right during that short window of opportunity, and it’s really satisfying to see it all working smoothly.”
Hash captured even more detailed footage in black and white two weeks later, on July 14. The first video was more blurry because Earth’s atmosphere bends light across the color spectrum as it travels from space. With a black and white lens, there’s a lot less distortion.
Hash worked on an iteration of the Dragon spacecraft — a version designed for cargo, not people — as a SpaceX intern in 2014. He later worked for the company as an engineer. He started tracking satellites for fun after college, but now he does it for a living at the satellite company Swarm Technologies.
He hasn’t lost his sense of awe for the efforts that put the Dragon capsule in space, though.
“[I] have a lot of good friends that put years of effort into making the first crewed launch possible,” Hash said. “More than anything, seeing Dragon docked up there, and knowing it safely carried two of the current astronauts, is an awesomely visible testament to their work and dedication. I am really lucky to know those folks.”
The current demonstration mission is the first of seven astronaut round-trips that NASA has contracted from SpaceX. The following six will be routine missions to the ISS.
Dave Mosher contributed reporting.
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