More than 10,000 man-made satellites orbit our planet, notes Space.com. Some are close enough, large enough and reflective enough to be seen with the naked eye during dusk and dawn hours. In addition to GPS array satellites and numerous other machines, it is possible to see the International Space Station, space shuttles, and the new iridium series of satellites without the aid of a telescope. In fact, the Teflon antennae of the iridium satellites can flare so brightly that you can see them in daylight. Armed with a little information about what is flying overhead tonight, you can pick out the man-made satellites among the stars.
- Skill level:
Things you need
- Location with relatively little light pollution
- Normal vision
- Optional satellite location information
Prepare for your skywatch by consulting a database that will tell you what satellites will appear from your vantage point and at what time. One such database is maintained by the German Aerospace Center called Heavens-Above.com. Using your exact latitude and longitude coordinates plus time zone, you can see a listing of satellites to watch for. You do not need to know your coordinates in advance; you can pinpoint your location on a world map, and the coordinates will be given to you. You can also use NASA's website. Click on your city, and the database will tell you when and where satellites will come into view in your area.
Walk outside at dusk in a location with as little light pollution as possible. Because satellites pass in the shadow of the earth and disappear from view, it is best to look for them 45 to 90 minutes after sunset or before sunrise. During these times, the sky will be dark enough to spot the satellites, but they will not be in the earth's shadow.
Scan the sky for bright objects that seem to be moving at a fast pace. Most satellites will take about 15 minutes to cross the sky. Some satellites, such as the International Space Station and space shuttles, will appear to be moving as fast as a jetliner and take just 3 or 4 minutes to cross the sky, according to Space.com.
Tips and warnings
- Join a local astronomy club to learn more about night-sky observations.
- Visit your library for books on skywatching for satellites.
- Use a telescope to see satellites more clearly.
- Never look directly into the sun when skywatching, especially if you are using a telescope. This will cause permanent damage to your vision.
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