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Night Sky

June 2011 Night Sky: Satellite watching

—Charlie Christmann
June evenings are great for getting outside and watching the night sky. One of my favorite activities is to sit on the patio and look up satellites passing overhead. Several hundred spacecraft now orbit around our planet. Many of those in low Earth orbit are bright enough to be seen by the naked eye as they streak across the night sky.

The best time to look is dawn or dusk. Even though the sun has set on the surface of the Earth, it’s still shining and reflecting off of objects high overhead. How bright an object appears depends upon several factors—height above the surface, size, reflectivity, and the angle between the satellite, Sun, and observer. Typically, a satellite will change in brightness and eventually fade out as it enters the Earth’s shadow.

One of the largest, brightest objects overhead is the International Space Station (ISS). It is very large, has reflective solar power wings, and has a relatively low orbit.


To have the best chance of seeing these orbiting satellites, you may want to consult one of the Web sites that predict when and where to look. The site I use is To the right, I’ll list a few of the brighter satellites for the first Friday evening in June (June 3). Remember, magnitude 3.0 is dimmer than a magnitude 2.0 object.

Just from this list of relatively bright objects, you can see how crowded the skies are. Under dark skies, you should be able to see even more of the dimmer satellites.

According to Heavens Above, the ISS will be visible and bright the first week of June (below):


And, just in case you want to see the new U.S. supersecret spacecraft, X-37B (table on right):

See for other satellites and times.

To help with the vertical altitude (Alt) angle and the compass heading azimuth (Az) angle, remember these easy guides. Hold your hand out at arm’s length. The distance between your fully extended thumb tip and little fingertip is about 25 degrees. From the tip of your index finger to the little finger is about 15 degrees. A clenched fist is about 10 degrees across. Your index, middle, and ring fingers held together are about 5 degrees. And, the width of your little finger is one degree.

The Planets and Moon

  • Mercury will be in the glare of the sun most of this month.
  • Look for Venus as the morning “star” this month, low in the east about an hour before sunrise, shining brightly at -3.9 magnitude.
  • Mars is rising about 4:40 a.m. in the east to start the month and rising earlier each morning. It will slide four degrees to the lower left of the waxing Moon on the 28th, 90 minutes before sunrise.
  • Jupiter also rises earlier in the east each morning, starting about 3:45 a.m. Look for a Jupiter-Moon conjunction on the 26th, an hour before sunrise.
  • Look for Saturn high in the southwest after sunset. The Moon can be found 11 degrees to the lower left of Saturn on the 10th, two hours after sunset.
  • A partial solar eclipses occurs over the North American Arctic Ocean on the 1st. This coincides with the new Moon. The full Moon, on the 15th, also brings a total lunar eclipse to Europe.

Tony Hull

Dr. Ed Krupp who will give the free public outreach talk at 7:30 p.m. on June 16

Astronomy and ceremony in the Prehistoric Southwest: Revisited

—Tony Hull
The Sky, day and night, is the common denominator between us today and the indigenous peoples of the Southwest.  Except for airplane trails and light pollution, we experience very much what they did as we watch the sun, moon and stars move. This sky has both ceremonial significance and calendric importance. One can observe seasonal changes of position of sunrise along the horizon, or for that matter, seasonal changes in the positions of shadows projected on rock art.  Such observation establishes the yearly sense of order, and marks special dates of economic or ceremonial importance. 

28 years ago, a seminal conference called Astronomy and Ceremony in the Prehistoric Southwest was held at the Maxwell Museum, University of New Mexico. The Maxwell Museum will again be the center for discussions around this topic, but this time the Conference will be in the new Hibben Center. Anthropologists, Archaeologists, Historians Rock Art Researchers, Astronomers and Archaeoastronomers will convene from across the country to discuss and debate their ideas and observations. The Maxwell Museum, Archaeology Society of New Mexico, CAASW and Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of New Mexico sponsor this Conference.

The Conference starts at 8:30 a.m. on Thursday, June 16 and extends through noon Saturday, June 18.  All those interested in broad themes of Cultural Astronomy of the Southwest are welcome to attend.  The conference registration is $75, and dinner $35.  Details, including registration information, may be found on the website  If you have questions, please contact me at or call 771 8566.

Talks at the Conference will address the compelling evidence for a Mesoamerican connection to the Southwest in general and to Chaco Canyon specifically.  There will be discussion of Navajo ethnoastronomy, phenomena in the Northern San Juan region and Arizona, in Chaco Canyon itself and the underlying research methods. 

Featured is a free public talk by noted author and researcher Dr. Ed Krupp at 7:30 p.m. on June 16 in Anthropology Lecture Hall 163 at the University of New Mexico. 

Dr. Krupp will give an overview:  Under Southwest Skies: Astronomy and Culture in the American Southwest.  Here, he will describe how people pull the sky down to earth and use it to order their lives, anticipate seasonal change, and make sense of the world. In the American Southwest, as in the rest of the world, astronomical observations activated calendars, and celestial symbolism infiltrated ceremonies. Evidence for prehistoric astronomy in the Southwest has been identified in ruins and rock art. With a few highlights from more than five decades of expeditions and investigations by pioneers in these studies, this program will follow the trail to the region’s celebrated canyons and cliffs for a critical glimpse of what caught the eye of skywatchers in the ancient Southwest and what it may have meant to them.

The next night, Friday, June 17, will include the Conference Dinner at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, open to both Conference attendees and non-attendees alike, featuring a special after dinner talk.

Researcher Dr. John Carlson of the University of Maryland and Director of the Center for Archeoastronomy, will tell us about The 2012 Phenomenon — What the Ancient Maya Calendar-keepers might have Anticipated: An Astronomer–Mesoamericanist’s Perspective.

Throughout the Conference on Astronomy and Ceremony of the Prehistoric Southwest: Revisited, we expect lively discussion of the most relevant research subjects in cultural astronomy of the Southwest.  Please visit the website if interested in attending.





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