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Sunday, September 06, 2009

The ISS by moonlight?

I saw a UFO tonight.

I see a lot of UFO's, honestly. I live in the flight path of an airport, and along many other flight routes, and I constantly see these unidentified airplanes flying to somewhere from somewhere. I could look them up, I suppose, to find out what flights they were, what kind of planes they were, where they were coming from and where they were going. But that would take some effort, and I really can't be bothered.

This was different.

I was leaving the house to go to my car around 8:40 Saturday evening. I was headed out to see some friends play at a club, starting at 9:00. I was going to be late, but that wasn't unusual.

I stepped out of the garage and headed to my car, reflexively looking to the West to scan for planets low in the sky. There were none. But I saw a light coming up out of the northwest. It looked like a plane, but it was very bright and an unusual color - a sort of yellowish-orange.

It was bright enough that I thought it might be a helicopter with a spotlight. I strained to see running lights but saw nothing. I strained to hear rotors or engines but heard nothing.

My cell phone was in my car. My camera was around my neck. I had a tripod in one hand and a cooler with caffeinated sodas in the other. My keys were in one of my hands.

The light moved at a steady pace higher in the Western sky.

What to do? I hurried to the car and opened the door, threw in the tripod and cooler and grabbed the phone. I could use my camera to take pictures. I could use my camera to take a silent movie. I could use my cell phone to take pictures or a movie.

I thought I squeezed off a single photo with the camera while I dialed my mom with the other hand. "Go to the front door and look up in the sky!" I said.

I ran to the front sidewalk to continue to track the light. It did not speed up noticeably as it went through its highest point - with a satellite, this is the closest it gets to you, and it covers a lot more sky per unit of time than when it is farther away. But it quickly began to dim as it passed into the Southwest, and then faded away as it got further South. It was gone before my mom made it to the door.

OK. That's the way satellites disappear. So it was a satellite. But which one?

It was bright. One of the brightest things I've seen in the sky. Brighter than Jupiter or Saturn. Not quite as bright as Venus. Maybe as bright as when the moon rises yellowish-orange through a hazy sky. About the same color, too.

I looked it up on Heavens-Above. I thought I found a listing for the International Space Station that corresponded to what I had seen, though it was ten minutes later than the listed time. But it turned out I had the wrong day, and the track was on the wrong side of the sky.

I looked for passes of the ISS for Saturday, September 5. There were none. According to the site, there were or will be passes visible from Nanticoke on August 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, September 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15...but NOT September 5.

I decided there must be a glitch in Heavens-Above's calculation. So I double-checked with the ISS homepage.

Nothing listed for my area for September 5.

Now it's possible, just possible, that Heavens-Above and NASA are using the same program to calculate visibility of the ISS. And maybe they both have the same glitch for September 5. Maybe.

I checked other possibilities. Other satellites. Even Iridium flares. Nothing. Nothing in the right place, at the right time, with the right brightness.

So if it wasn't the International Space Station and it wasn't a known satellite,what did I see?

An airplane? Maybe. But why the bright orange light, visible both when it was approaching and departing, only to fade away exactly as a satellite would? And why no running lights, and no noise?

An unlisted satellite? Possibly. Heavens-Above doesn't list everything. But this would have to be very big to be so bright. How many large satellites are in orbit right now that would show up like that?

A meteor? I have seen large, bright, slow-moving meteors before. The one I saw in January of 1990 from Newark, Delaware looked like the light of an airplane - with a large, flaming tail. This thing didn't have a tail. I checked.

An asteroid? Perish the thought. For it to be so bright, it would have to have been very large and very close. Unless it was scraping the atmosphere, in which case it could have been somewhat smaller but terrifyingly close. Somebody other than me would have noticed that.

A weather balloon reflecting the light of Venus refracted through swamp gas? No.

A satellite illuminated by the Full Moon? Hmmmmm. It was opposite the Moon in my sky. I'd have to work through some stuff, and see where the moonlight terminator would be. (Great album title there. Better make a note of that.) That would explain why it wasn't listed, and even the color - sunlight reflected by the Moon, maybe refracted by the Earth's atmosphere, giving a sunset tinge to the illumination... Actually, that sounds incredibly reasonable.

It could even have been the ISS. As far as I know, only the ISS has enough surface area to light up like that. If I could find an orbital track for the ISS for that time period, and confirmed that it was to the West of Nanticoke, PA, moving from North to South at about 8:40 PM Eastern Time on September 5, that would clinch it.

OK. I think I've convinced myself. I just changed the title of this post from "So. What did I just see?" to "The ISS by moonlight?" If I'm right, this will be something to look for in the future!


Todd HellsKitchen said...

Very cool!

...tom... said...


... and see where the moonlight terminator would be. (Great album title there. Better make a note of that.)


It would have to be, of course, a Pink Floyd album.

' going old-school music in the comment section . . .. '