Twinkle Twinkle little Satellite
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By Craig Kimble

     Camping with the scouts when I was a boy always had an air of wonder and excitement. We were always learning valuable outdoor skills like fire starting and shelter building. But the most memorable time was spent with my pals singing around the campfire or stargazing and talking about alien invaders with ray guns. Even now, stargazing is a special part of my outdoor adventures. Just a few years ago while stargazing with a friend, we noticed something in the heavens that I hadn't seen before. We found that it was possible to see a man made satellite as it crossed the night sky. Since then, when camping, I try to take time to look into the heavens for a satellite or two.


 Satellites are best seen for about two hours after sunset, you can also see them in the morning before the sun comes up, if you're an early riser. Satellites are visible because they reflect sunlight. They  are not visible all night because as they travel across the sky they eventually enter the earth's shadow. The brightness of orbiting satellites very in intensity depending on size, construction and altitude. The darkness of the sky makes a big difference too, so pick an observing spot away from any light pollution.


 So what does a satellite look like? Actually a satellite looks like a star that's moving. You wont confuse it with an airplane because they have blinking lights. Just lay on your back and let your eyes adjust to looking at the stars. Now relax and enjoy the view and soon you will notice a star that moves across the sky. A Satellite!


According to a NASA web site, more than 8000 man made objects orbit the earth from old rocket motors and junk to the ISS (International Space Station) and the HST (Hubble Space Telescope).  Don't you wish you could know what you were looking at when you spotted a satellite? You're in luck. It is possible to know which satellite it is and even predict before hand when a satellite will be flying by over your head.

After five and a half years in orbit, the LDEF satellite was photographed just prior to retrieval by the RMS which gently guided it into the payload bay. The west coast of Baja California (29N, 115.0W) can be seen faintly in the background.

NASA Photo

Software programs are available for your home computer and I'll mention them later, but the easiest way to predict a satellite passing by is to visit www.heavens-above.com. You can use the site anonymously or you can chose to register as a user, either way you will need to follow the instructions to find your location in longitude and latitude.  With your location found you can now select various links to see satellite predictions for your area, look at a sky chart, or view other interesting information. The web site also has a great links page to find more information on the subject.


One thing to remember is that the sky and satellite predictions change according to your viewing location. So if your going on a backpack trip and would like to satellite watch, you will need to look at your topo map and determine the latitude and longitude of your camp spot. It's then just a matter of entering the correct data into the site and printing the results. If you have a PDA, Heavens-Above also offers an AvantGo channel that will prepare predictions for three days.


STS100-E-5958 (29 April 2001) --- Backdropped against the blue and white Earth and sporting a readily visible new addition in the form of the Canadarm2 or space station robotic arm, the International Space Station (ISS) was photographed following separation from the Space Shuttle Endeavour. With six astronauts and a Rosaviakosmos cosmonaut aboard the shuttle, the spacecraft performed a fly-around survey of the station, which was inhabited by two astronauts and a Russian cosmonaut. The image was recorded with a digital still camera.  NASA Photo

Now for the software! I personally use two different programs on my PDA.

The first is Planetarium v2.2.3; a program for stargazing plus a whole lot more. You can download this program at AHo Software.
Next, I use a palm program for satellite observation from bigfattail.com called Pocketsat+ v1.4. With data I download from the net, this program will predict satellites for any Lat./Lon. Great for a person on the move!
Programs for windows and Mac can be found all over the net but a good place to start is the Visual Observers Home Page web site.


A few months ago I went on a spring cross country ski trip with a friend. I was able to dazzle him with seemingly uncanny ability to accurately point to a location in the sky and looking at my watch say "Now!" as a satellite came into view. We had a good laugh but we were also privileged to see both the International Space Station and the Hubble Space Telescope in the same night. Can you imagine, Two grown men standing in the snow on a bitter cold night looking into the night sky hoping to see space ships. I guess things haven't changed that much from my scouting days.