18 August 2006

The heavens above

I find myself looking up at the stars quite a bit. The sky is hazy, and it's gotten cloudy lately, both of which obscure good viewing. Nonetheless, I still do it.

This is a product of delivering papers as a boy before the sun came up. I would walk for a block or two, staring at the stars and then realize I walked that far without delivering any papers!

My biggest fascination was finding satellites. It's really not that difficult. Generally, they look about the same brightness as other stars, with the only difference being that they are moving! Of course, to see a satellite, it must be illuminated by sunlight when you're looking at it.

I found a pretty cool website called Heavens Above which is essentially a satellite tracker. This is not the only website of its kind, but I found it to be very user friendly. Once you fix your location, you can query the location of specific satellites or find what satellites happen to be crossing over your head at any particular time.

One of the brightest objects you can find is the International Space Station. I saw that it was to pass within my field of view last night, so I set my watch to remind me (it passes almost directly overhead tonight). I also found another satellite (Lacrosse 2, see also here), which is actually a reconnaissance satellite, was also set to pass over about 30 minutes later (and will also pass over tonight).

The hazy sky is getting worse, and the ISS was less than 30 degrees above the horizon, but it was bright enough to find pretty easily. And just as the site predicted, it passed out of the sunlight and disappeared to watching eyes.

Thirty minutes later, Lacrosse 2 was to pass into sunlight almost directly overhead (which definitely helped, because it is further from the horizon haze and it was a full magnitude dimmer than the ISS). Again I picked it up almost immediately, and followed it across the sky until it faded into the haze.

I am certainly not an astronomer, but I think it's pretty cool not only to be able to see a particular satellite (or space station for that matter), but to actually locate it and know with certainty its identity. I'll try using my camera tonight, but I am not a photographer either, and without some sort of amplification, I doubt anything will show up.
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