Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Cool Flyover Captured

There's a whole subculture of astronomy that is interested in observing man-made objects that are part of the satellite constellation swarming in orbit around earth. When a satellite (or space junk or spacecraft) is illuminated by the sun while you are in the dark, it will appear to be a bright star slowly moving across the sky.

A great site to help you locate objects is Heavens-Above.

Part of the allure of satellite observation is the challenge of being able to accurately calculate the position of the satellite, as well as the orientation of the reflective surfaces in relation to your location (does no good if the solar arrays reflect the sunlight away from you, but if they reflect sunlight TOWARDS you, then the object will appear to be very bright, and will be easy to observe). The Heavens-Above website takes care of that for you.

Another part of the allure is to accurately be able to synchronize time between disparate systems (you, Heavens-Above, NASA, and Strategic Command all need to be synchronized). The window of opportunity is sometimes only seconds long, so you need to know where to look in the sky and exactly when to look in order to find the object. If you miss the window, then you may not get another opportunity (i.e., observing Space Shuttle flyovers).

Well, some people take this whole "sport" to a much higher degree. They actually are able to predict Solar Transits of objects (when the object crosses in front of the Sun as seen by the observer), and then photograph the silhouettes of the object against the Sun (using telescopes and solar filters). That requires incredible timing, because the window of opportunity to capture a transit is extremely small.

The Space Shuttle returned to flight within the past week for the first time since the Columbia incident. Before docking with the ISS, it did a "back flip" maneuver so that the astronauts on-board ISS could examine the Shuttle for damage. Well, it so happened that an astronomy group in Germany captured the back flip maneuver during a Solar Transit! Talk about being lucky!