Sandoval Signpost

An Independent Monthly Newspaper Serving the Community since 1988

 
Night Sky

October 2010

—Charlie Christmann

The ISS is not the only satellite to look for in the night sky. Here are a few bright ones to look for during the first weekend of October:

Flying Stars

If you start watching the twilight sky 45 minutes after sunset or more than 45 minutes before sunrise, you may see a few “moving stars.” They are most likely artificial satellites. If you go out and carefully study the sky near dusk or dawn, you should not have to wait more than 15 minutes to see an Earth-orbiting satellite.

Satellites shine because they reflect sunlight. A satellite entering the Earth’s shadow immediately vanishes from view and pursues an unseen path until it again emerges into full sunlight. The biggest, and one of the brightest of all, is the International Space Station (ISS). The sheer size of the station and its solar panels usually make this satellite very bright.

Around five thousand satellites have been launched into Earth orbit. About two thousand are still there. There are thousands of smaller pieces of junk, most of which are too small to see, also circling the Earth. Depending on who’s counting, anywhere from one hundred to three hundred satellites can be seen with the unaided eye. These are generally more than about 20 feet in length and anywhere from 100 to 400 miles above Earth.

The ISS is by far the biggest man-made object circling the planet. The station is 167 feet long, 358 feet wide, and would weigh a whopping 815,520 pounds if it were on the Earth’s surface. Traveling around the Earth at 17,239.2 mph with an average altitude of 240 miles, the station can appear to move as fast as a high-flying jetliner. It sometimes only takes about four to five minutes to cross the sky. To the unaided eye, it could easily be confused with an airplane. Amateur astronomers with the right equipment have been able to take amazingly clear photos of the ISS from the ground.

The ISS is not the only satellite to look for in the night sky. Here are a few bright ones to look for during the first weekend of October: *See box.

These are just a few of the brighter objects passing overhead. For more, go to the Web site I use—www.heavens-above.com. Once you register with the site (it is free), you need to pick your location. I used the following latitude and longitude for my home in Placitas: 35.3294°N, 106.4519°W. Those coordinates should be close enough for most Signpost readers to use.

The Web site will generate a list of all of the objects that you can see that evening and will tell what they are, when to look, and in what direction to look. As a bonus, when you know the name of the satellite you are watching, you will sound like an expert to those who don’t read this column.

Other Events

The Orionid meteor shower peaks on the 21st. Also that evening, get out your telescopes, and look for Jupiter. One of its moons, Europa, will slide behind the planet at 11:21 p.m. Then on the 22nd, again look at Jupiter for the moon Io. It will disappear at 10:33 p.m. as it begins a transit across the face of the planet. It should reappear on the other side of Jupiter at 12:48 a.m.

The Planets and Moon

  • Mercury rises about one hour ahead of the sun in the east the first of the month and fades into the sun by mid-month. The waning crescent Moon will join Mercury on the 5th. Use binoculars about 35 minutes before sunrise to see the planet 11 degrees to the lower left of the Moon.
  • Venus is dimming fast as the month progresses, setting in the west after sunset. A conjunction of the Moon and Venus occurs on the 9th. Look one hour before sunset for Venus four degrees to the lower left of the waxing crescent Moon. Use binoculars for a better view—just don’t look at the sun.
  • Mars can be found low in the west after sunset.
  • Jupiter is very bright this month, just past opposition. Look in the east after sunset. Jupiter will be the brightest object (except the Moon) in the sky. On the 19th, see Jupiter six degrees below the waxing gibbous Moon.
  • Saturn is setting with the sun this month and will not be viewable.
  • On the 31st, keep a sharp eye out for strange things flying through the night sky, accompanied by strange cackles and screeches.
  • The Moon is new at 12:44 p.m. on the 7th and full on the 22nd at 7:36 p.m.

 

     

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