Unfortunately, many of you reading this column have never seen such a satellite, although theyâve been visible in one form or another for decades. Actually, since 1960, when the first of two giant Mylar balloons was launched into earth orbit, instantly becoming visible over much of the planet.
It was my father taking me outside as a youngster to see the Echo balloons that became the foundation for a lifelong fascination with space, and also with radio signals, as these satellites could be used as reflectors for ground-based signals.
I live in a typical suburban area, previously lit with sodium and mercury streetlights, now with even brighter LED lights, and with skies further illuminated from nearby shopping and industrial zones. However, that doesnât deter me from going outside to marvel at satellites crossing the evening and night skies.
Thanks to various tools that the internet has brought us, it has become a relatively simple procedure to view a pass of, say, the International Space Station. Although itâs pretty much the brightest object in the night sky save for the moon, and Venus, depending on its phase, few people have actually ever seen the ISS as it passes overhead.
Iâve made it one of my missions in life to promote observation of the sky in a city environment. There is much to be seen with the naked eye in our light-polluted skies.
So, what is involved in seeing a pass of the ISS? What will you see and how will you know when and where to look? What about other satellites?
In previous columns Iâve referred to standard resources such as heavens-above.com, one of the earliest sites on the internet, run by Chris Peat in Germany. It still remains the go-to site in terms of sheer detail and the number of satellites it tracks, be it through the original website platform or through its mobile versions.
Heavens-above makes it easy to look many days ahead to get an idea of what might be visible in the night sky. You can also set it for pretty much any location on earth, so if you want to help a relative or friend overseas spot the space station, you can determine exactly when and where to look for it in the sky.
Recently, particularly so in Europe, people have been drawn to look at the so-called Starlink trains, a long string of up to 60 satellites, which create an eerie view as they cross the sky from horizon to horizon. Starlink is Elon Muskâs project to deliver internet connections across the planet via a constellation of thousands of satellites. For a few days after their launch, in batches of 60, they are highly visible.
That leads us to James Darpinian. Like me, heâs had a fascination for satellites, and he wanted to see the original Starlink train when it was launched early last year. In a brief Twitter interview with The B.C. Catholic, he noted that he tried to watch the first Starlink launch and realized he could make something much easier to use than the existing satellite tracking apps.
âMy first job out of college was developing orbit visualizations at Northrop Grumman Space Technology, so Iâm familiar with the field.â
And so he created See A Satellite Tonight. He realized most people donât know that you can see satellites in the sky pretty much every night, without a telescope.
This site is quite unlike any other satellite-viewing prediction site. In fact, when I first saw it, I was certain it was a fake of some sort. But then I spotted my own house, with a visualization of the sky above it and satellites moving across the screen above the house, and I knew Iâd stumbled across something unique.
See A Satellite Tonight could not be simpler, and at the same time could not be more powerful. Combining Google Earth, Street View, Sky View, weather forecasts, and a visible satellites database, it produces gorgeous three-dimensional views of how a satellite, or one of Muskâs satellite trains, will look from your vantage point.
No user action, other than a click on the splash screen, is required to get going. Your location, simply marked as âYou,â is shown on a portion of the globe. Satellites in motion are shown relative to your location. Down the left side of the screen is a list of upcoming potential satellite-viewing opportunities for the next five days. An opportunity may be flagged as âbright,â particularly for the ISS, or it may include something like â15x,â indicating that a train of 15 Starlink satellites will be crossing the sky.
The right-hand portion of the screen is given over to a Street View coupled with a Sky View to show where to look in relation to your home for a particular observation. If you are looking ahead, click on the âSchedule a reminderâ box to receive a browser popup notice or to add the event to your Google Calendar.
I should add that the Elon Musk Starlink trains may not be quite so spectacular going forward. Various measures have been tried to minimize their impact on terrestrial astronomy. It looks like new, slightly lower orbits, coupled with a sunshade to reduce sunlight reflection from the solar panels, will make them much less bright, and confine appearances to near sunset and sunrise.
Notre Dame Secondary physics student Yvette Sin says she has always been fascinated by the wonders of the night sky and was âecstaticâ when she heard about See a Satellite Tonight. âI can now view the brilliance of the night sky with clarity and be well-informed of any changes that may occur. Do not miss out on the opportunity!â
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World news – GB – Satellite spotting has never been so easy