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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Spotting the International Space Station

While we all go about our business here on the big ol' Earth, the ISS continues its orbital sweeps around the planet. About every 90 minutes is another sunrise followed 45 minutes later by a sunset. Although they may not be making headlines, the station crew continues to perform the daily maintenance of the station equipment, and perform experiments using the station's scientific instruments.

At 8:36 pm MDT tonight I'll be going outside to watch ISS float serenely across the sky in a matter of minutes, reflecting evening sunlight off its modules and solar panels. This time I'm taking my astronomy binoculars with me.

It's 8:47 pm now, and the excitement is all over... except for me, the space nerd! I went outside about 15 minutes early (after calling a couple of friends who would be interested in spotting it). I hung my 10 x 50 binoculars from my neck and went out to the driveway for a relatively unobstructed view of the northern sky. There are several distracting streetlights nearby, but they don't bother me as much as a very bright house light across the street. Still, it's dark enough to do some binocular astronomy. In a 5-minute period I spotted 3 polar-orbiting satellites moving south-north, several nebulas near Sagittarius, and of course, the galaxy Andromeda as it rose above the top of Mt. Timpanogos.

And I spotted Jupiter... Wow. Wow. Very nice and bright in my binocs, with the bonus of spotting three of its moons very easily. The Jupiter system is fascinating to watch, and the disk of Jupiter is just big enough in the binocs that on a very good viewing night with still air I can barely make out some different colored cloud bands. And the Moon - well I can always enjoy looking at the Moon. It's in a waxing crescent phase right now, which makes it fun to watch the terminator (sun-lit edge) as it slowly picks out craters and mountains.

Then, at 8:36, right on the button, a small light started moving from the horizon. As it rose higher in the sky, it quickly grew very bright from the reflected evening sunlight. it cruised steadfastly across the sky, about 50 degrees from the horizon, and then toward the ESE sky- which is of course crowded out by Mt. Timpanogos. But before it reached that point, it reached the Earth's shadow, and... swoosh. It faded out very fast. With the binocs I could follow it until it was just above the mountain shadow. During the flight, I still could only make out a blocky shape, no details, because of the extreme brightness in my view, and the sad fact that the weight of these binoculars causes a bit of shaking. I need to invest in a binocs monopod.

Mark Daymont
Space Center Educator
From his Blog:
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