'No fireworks on ISS,' so astronauts experiment with 'light painting' instead (photos)

a timelapse image showing an astronaut moving from the back to the front of a module in the international space station. at back is an american flag
NASA astronaut Matthew Dominick plays with lighting and camera effects for a July 4, 2024 photoshoot on the International Space Station, during Expedition 71. (Image credit: Matthew Dominick/NASA/X)

With no fireworks allowed on the space station, NASA astronauts improvised with camera flashes to celebrate Independence Day.

International Space Station (ISS) astronaut Matthew Dominick played around with "light painting" — a long exposure in a dark room that illuminates a subject with a light source — during Expedition 71's time off to celebrate the Fourth of July.

"No fireworks on ISS so we used camera flashes instead. Experimented with 'light painting' today," Dominick wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

Dominick has already been practicing image time-lapses on the orbiting complex in between his regular duties, capturing stunning pictures of Earth and the space station in motion. But for the U.S. holiday, the NASA astronaut mounted the Stars and Stripes to the back of the Japanese Kibo module and played around with interior exposures. Then he posted the results on social media.

Two of the photos show Dominick skittering across Kibo in different ways — one with him zooming through the shot like a superhero, and another one catching him in more of a space tumble. The grin on his face is infectious.

Related: NASA astronauts send Fourth of July message to Earth from ISS (video)

NASA astronaut Matthew Dominick playing with camera settings during a photoshoot from the International Space Station posted July 4, 2024. (Image credit: Matthew Dominick/NASA/X)

Dominick described how the time-lapses were staged: "Turned off the lights. Manually actuated our own flashes. Ambient light only from computers and experiment LEDs." He also added some photography stats, for aspiring space photographers: 15-second exposures, f22, 24mm, ISO 500.

For one photo, he got much of the Expedition 71 long-duration crew and the two Boeing Starliner astronauts (in space for a shorter mission) to join him in Kibo. Each astronaut used their own light source to illuminate themselves in the semi-darkness of the research facility.

The group was instructed to "fire your own flash at will, inside the 15 second exposure of course," Dominick explained in a reply about how they staged it.

Part of the Expedition 71 crew, and two Boeing Starliner astronauts on a shorter-term mission, gather in the International Space Station in a photo transmitted on July 4, 2024 during Independence Day. From left to right, approximately: Expedition 71 member Tracy Dyson (upside-down, in white shirt); Boeing Starliner Crew Flight Test or CFT commander Butch Wilmore (upside-down, wearing shirt with stars); Expedition 71's Matthew Dominick (bottom, in blue shirt); Expedition 71's Mike Barratt (center); a Russian cosmonaut (against the American flag) who is difficult to view in the picture, but likely Expedition 71's Oleg Kononenko; and Boeing Starliner CFT pilot Suni Williams (upside down, wearing a shirt with writing on it). (Image credit: Matthew Dominick/NASA/X)

While Dominick is using his spare time to play with photos in fun, all astronauts are trained in orbital photography to assist with vital Earth observations during their time in space.

"Astronauts often take beautiful pictures of the aurora borealis, city lights at night, and the horizon, but they can also photograph natural hazards such as volcanic eruptions and wildfires from space," NASA officials wrote in 2021. (More recently, for example, Expedition 71 has been capturing pictures of Hurricane Beryl from space.)

"In fact, astronaut photography can play a crucial role in helping scientists and decision makers monitor hazards in near real-time," the NASA posting added. "While most traditional satellites only take photos looking straight down at the Earth, astronauts can capture images from a variety of perspectives."

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace

  • Classical Motion
    They need some thruster laser drones.
  • Mergatroid
    Missed opportunity if you ask me. They should get some fireworks companies to try and create a firework that will work in space. Something with its own oxygen so it can get some good looking effects. Then, passing over a country celebrating at night they could eject some display/light sources. I'm note quite sure how they could pull it off, but I bet someone somewhere could make some money off of this.
  • Classical Motion
    Orbital fireworks.....no forest fires.