Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Starships that pass in the night

I went outside last night around 10:00 to do a little backyard astronomy, emboldened by the beautiful seeing the previous night. Unfortunately the seeing last night was not quite so good, with fractionally higher humidity and a sky leaning more towards steel gray than black or even midnight blue. I could barely make out Sagittarius, and could only find one of the three Messier objects from the night before.

While I waited for my eyes to fully dark-adapt I did a little satellite hunting. This used to be a more challenging sport, back in the days before satellite launches were commonplace and the sky was littered with launch debris. Once upon a time you needed to focus with all your might to pick out the dim specks gliding through the darkest parts of the sky. Now it's just a matter of looking at the stars and paying attention to which ones are moving.

So I did that last night. I found one in the Southeast, in the general part of the sky that I was observing, and I tracked it as it moved North through the Eastern sky. It was moving at quite a clip and was fairly bright.

Suddenly my eye noticed another moving point of light, equally bright, equally fast, moving in the same track but in the opposite direction.

I didn't expect a collision. Collisions in space happen all the time, given the amount of space junk that's up there, but they generally involve high-velocity paint chips. I did not think I was about to see two satellites crash into each other, and I didn't. They sailed silently along in their orbits, one going North-to-South, the other South-to-North. I followed both of them as best I could.

Someone else might have been convinced they had just seen two UFO's, Unidentified Flying Objects, and I suppose I technically had - until I checked with Heavens-Above.com and was able to look up the satellites visible from Nanticoke between 10:00 and 10:15 last night and check out their tracks across the sky. Now I know that what I saw were the Cosmos 1980 Rocket and the Cosmos 1833 Rocket making their rounds.

Next time I'm going out for some backyard astronomy, I'll be sure to check with Heavens-Above first! At least then I'll have something to look for, even if the seeing isn't all that great.

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Jennifer said...

For heaven's sake! Sounds like someone needs a trip to the planetarium at the State Museum in Harrisburg. Then, you can go to Mars. It's just a couple blocks away and they serve the best martinis!

betz said...

i really need to learn more about the stars, you guys are leaving me in your dust.

D.B. Echo said...

A capital idea, Jennifer! When are you free? Let's go!