Amateur Astronomers from San Antonio Flash the Space Station With a Laser

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Why? Because they can. And besides, no one else had ever done it successfully.

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I love amateur astronomers. Case in point: the San Antonio Astronomical Association members decided it would be fun to calculate when the International Space Station was overhead, find a big laser, and shoot that laser at the ISS when an astronaut was watching. Why? Because no one had ever done it. Because they could. Because they love space. Because they'll always have that picture you see up there, which was snapped by astronaut Don Pettit, to prove that they touched space, at least with some photons.

While it might seem easy to send a laser signal to the space station as it passes overhead, it's actually surprisingly difficult. Pettit explains:

This took a number of engineering calculations. Projected beam diameters (assuming the propagation of a Gaussian wave for the laser) and intensity at the target had to be calculated. Tracking space station's path as it streaked across the sky was another challenge. I used email to communicate with Robert Reeves, one of the association's members. Considering that it takes a day, maybe more, for a simple exchange of messages (on space station we receive email drops two to three times a day), the whole event took weeks to plan.
The setup that eventually worked required precise timing, a one-watt blue laser, and a white spotlight.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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