As spring approaches we're all spending more time outside. Despite our proximity to Philadelphia and extensive light pollution, there is still some quality sky-watching to be had. The trick is to concentrate on objects which are bright enough to be seen through the orange haze that permeates our night sky.
Man-made satellites may be small compared to the stars but they are a whole lot closer to us. Also, they have shiny reflective metal surfaces. There are a number of very bright objects visible to the naked eye. If you look up on any evening just after sunset or right before dawn you can find them by watching carefully and patiently waiting.
Or, you can lookup the day's sighting opportunities online. A good resource is the Heavens Above website. Enter your coordinates (Narberth is 40.01N by 75.27W) and take a look at the predictions for the brightest objects. Smaller numbers indicate higher brightness and negative numbers are especially bright. Objects greater than 3.5 magnitude (i.e. numbers smaller than 3.5) will be bright enough for easy viewing in Narberth.
Go Outside Tonight!
Tonight, March 30th head outside at 8:45PM. Let's hope the weather is clear! The ISS (International Space Station) will be flying directly overhead. With its new solar panels deployed, it can become the brightest object in the evening sky besides the moon. Tonight it will be as bright as the planet Jupiter; A very easy find.
Orient yourself looking towards the Northwest; That is, look to the right of the setting sun. At 8:50PM you'll see the ISS appear as a bright, slowly moving object just above the treeline. After three minutes it should be almost directly overhead and very, very bright. Then a few seconds after it reaches the zenith, it will blink out and completely disappear while still overhead. This is because the space station has fallen into Earth's shadow.
If you had a fancy telescope with equatorial motor mount, CCD camera, and special software you could make a movie like this. But, if all you have are your own two eyes, you'll still have a very satisfying experience.
Spotting the ISS is easy, rewarding, and especially exciting for the kids. Remember, there is a real live crew up there circling the Earth every 90 minutes.
From the ISS you can move on to spot military intelligence satellites (be sure to wave hello as they pass overhead), defunct satellites (as the tumble they will blink or flicker), space junk (an astronaut recently lost his toolbag), and more.