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Friday, May 28, 2004

Look! Up in the sky!

When I was a little kid, the skies were much darker and you could see a lot more stars. This was for several reasons, but chiefly because there was a lot less light pollution back then. Also, my eyes were a lot better 25 or 30 years ago than they are now.

Some nights, stepping out of our car after coming back home from a visit to my grandmother's or a trip to the roller skating rink, I would arch my neck and look straight up into the sky. And some nights, I would see little moving lights among the stars. These usually moved from north to south or south to north, which seemed odd, because most planes (in my experience) flew from east to west or west to east. (We lived due west of an airport, and New York City was several hundred miles almost directly east of us.) My father explained to me that these might be high-altitude planes, or maybe satellites. (It seems likely that what I was seeing were satellites in polar orbits.) I was amazed that someone standing in the driveway of his house could just look up and see such a tiny thing so far away.

Now, the sky is practically littered with satellites. Satellite tracks ruin (or at least feature in) many modern astrophotos. During a fireworks-watching/stargazing session one 4th of July a few years ago on the rooftop deck of my friend's house in the Poconos, about a dozen of us were pointing out satellites to each other - more and more as our eyes adapted to the dark. Eventually I spotted a satellite in the very narrow field of view of my friend's high-powered telescope. The highlight of the night was a satellite that got brighter...and brighter...and brighter...until we were convinced we had just watched something explode. It turned out to be something else entirely.

With all these bright lights flitting overhead, it's a wonder that more people aren't reporting U.F.O. sightings. For most people, these would legitimately be Unidentified Flying Objects: they certainly don't know what they are, and probably have no way of finding out what they are.

But here's how you can. It's a great site called Heavens-Above.com. You just punch in your latitude and longitude (if you know them - and remember, if you live west of Greenwich, England, your longitude is negative), or simply look up your hometown or wherever on their site. Then you can get a listing of what satellites are visible in your sky, and when you can see them, and where exactly you have to look. I just watched the International Space Station fly through my northeastern sky, and the only reason I knew enough to look is because I had just stopped by Heavens-Above. Go visit there yourself, punch in your location, and find out what you can see!

And as Jack Horkheimer always says, "Remember, keep looking up!"

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