At least once a week I like to look up into the night sky and remind myself that I’m — we are — on a planet that, along with a few others, orbits about an immense and distant sun in a mindboggling large, ancient, and starfilled universe. How often do you reflect on part of that?
I’ve been fortunate to have access to some decent and not-too-expensive telescopes in my life. Through their use I’ve seen the rings and moons of Saturn, and various other planets and stars I can’t recall. I’ve been fortunate enough to see meteor showers in the Arizona desert, and over the Grand Canyon. 30 years ago, while in the Catskills of upstate New York, I was able to see the band of the Milky Way stretching from one horizon to the other.
Within the last few weeks, partly due to news stories about the space shuttle and the International Space Station, I’ve become interested in spotting some of these “local” spots of light in the night or early morning sky. I started searching for web sites with information on obeserving the shuttle and space station in their orbits. Two sites I found to be quite useful are SpaceWeather.com and Heavens-Above.com.
ISS and space shuttle flyover. They appear as streaks on the right side.
According to their subhead SpaceWeather.com provides “News and Information about the Sun-Earth Environment”. Their home page discusses solar wind and solar flares, aurora activity, sunspots and the Northern Lights, information on telescopes and cameras, and —most interesting to me in terms of this post— “Satellite Flybys” with their “Satellite Tracker” service page.
Once you arrive at this page you can enter your postal code if you are in the United States or Canada. Or you can click a link to access their Global Flybys page for other countries in the world. For the glabal page you select your country, state, and city to access satellite information.
SpaceWeather.com does limit their satellite information to a select short list of satellites. In their own words, “We cut through the confusion by narrowing the list to a handful of the brightest and most interesting. At the moment we’re monitoring the Lacrosse 3 spy satellite, the International Space Station, the Early Ammonia Servicer and NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope”.
Once you’ve entered your location information they provide you with the next seven days worth of flybys. The results tell you the name of the object or satellite, what time the object becomes visible (rise time), how long it will be visible (transit time), the direction to look, its maximum angle above the horizon (max elevation), and its brightness (magnitude). Most objects they list can be seen with the naked eye or binoculars. You can click on the name of the object to find out more information about it.
They also have a SpaceWeatherPhone.com site which sends text alerts to your cell phone about solar activity and astronomical events in your area. These alerts are pay services. It’s $4.95 a month for solar activity, and $6.95 p[er month for astronomical, meteor showers, and satellite activity. Perhaps you know a stargazer who’d be interested in receiving these alerts.
In the few days I was visiting SpaceWeather.com I did find there were several service outages. I was unable to learn the cause of these outages though, admittedly, I didn’t look to find out why either.
I found Heavens-Above.com‘s results to be more to my liking, though the interface required a little more of a learning curve. I’ll explain the best approach so it’ll be easier for you, should you choose to explore it, and I think you should.
The site itself is much simpler than the SpaceWeather.com site. It appears to be the sole work of Chris Peat in Germany. His site covers a broader range of satellites including Iridium communication satellites (which apparently have reflective panels which “flare” in the early morning sun). He groups his observations by satellite for about a dozen observation times.
To get the best results on Heavens-Above.com
- Click the link “Select from map” under the heading “Configuration”. This will take you to a Google map of the world.
- Place your mouse over your region of the world, and roll the wheel on your mouse away from you to zoom in.
- When you finally locate where you are, just single click on that location. (Write down the north and west coordinates under the map if you think you might like to use this site more in the future. You can create a user account and record those coordinates as your location.)
- Type a name for your location in the “Name” box.
- Select your time zone from the list, and click “Submit”.
(If you don’t have a wheel mouse, you can click double-click on your region. Repeat till you have zoomed in close enough to make out where you are or, if travelling, where you’ll be. If you have trouble double-clicking, you can use the controls on the left hand side of the map. The + and – zoom in and out, while directional arrows scroll the map, left right and up and down. You can also hold and drag the map with your mouse.)
Once you’ve set your location, you can choose what you’d like to observe: Satellites or Astronomy. In my case, I chose ISS for the International Space Station. The site listed a dozen “Visible Passes” which contained similiar information to the SpaceWeather.com results.
Clicking a particular date for the results allowed me to see a “Whole Sky Chart” and a “Detailed Star Chart” which set the path of the ISS against a star and constellation chart, so I would know where to look.
Then I could also click for a “Ground Track” which shows a map of my region with a trackline for the ISS marked with clock times to show me where the ISS would be relative to my location. This also made it easier to know which way to look (assuming you have a sense of direction).
So that’s a brief summary of both sites. As I said, I preferred the detail and breadth offered by the Heavens Above site, but a more casual or younger stargazer might like the ease of the SpaceWeather.com site.
Sadly, all this information cannot control the weather. It’s winter here in New York, and its been quite cloudy and overcast these days, so I have had little luck spotting the ISS through the clouds. One day, when I wasn’t looking for it, I noticed a fast moving point of light in a break in the clouds. I waited for it to get closer, thinking it might be a high flying plane, but it disappeared when it should have become visible in the next break in the cloud cover. That made me wonder, until later, when I read that the ISS will disappear from view when it passes into the Earth’s shadow. So, I probably did spot the ISS, and I witnessed it disappearing from view as it entered the Earth’s shadow.
Since then, I have given some thought to digging out my compass and binoculars so I could try again to spot the International Space Station.
Also, you may recall that on a Nov. 19th spacewalk, astronaut Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper of the Space Shuttle Endeavor, dropped her toolkit after a grease gun inside it burst, and she watched as the kit floated away. Both of these sites provide tracking information for spotting the toolkit as it continues its orbit of the Earth. The ISS and the shuttle can be seen with the naked eye, but they recommend using binoculars for the toolkit since it is significantly smaller.
Heidmarie drops her toolkit