Monday, January 21

It's a bird? It's a plane?

NASA recently launched a niffy new email alert for folks keen to view the International Space Station.I’ve heard that the station is surprisingly bright and thus easy to spot as it passes overhead.  I subscribed to it several months ago. Initially the alerts highlighted viewing opportunities in early hours of the morning which I could never be bothered rousing for, or the sky was inconveniently overcast.

Today I was alerted to a one minute viewing opportunity at 22:19 this evening. The weather was clear and, at 42 degrees above the horizon, the viewing angle was relatively high in the sky. With a hint of skeptical anticipation I dutifully stepped out on to our southern balcony shortly before the predicted time.

On schedule, a bright light appeared in the sky, broadly at the predicted point on the compass i.e. starting from the Southwest before disappearing in the South Southwest. The 419.45 tonne structure is currently flying 403 kilometres above the Earth’s surface, travelling at 27,625 km/h. It was clearly visible despite the ubiquitous urban night glow, moving steadily towards my vantage point.

At first I thought I had simply spotted an aircraft. However, as predicted, the bright dot of light abruptly vanished midway across the night sky a minute later. Definitely not an aircraft! No doubt the station’s sudden disappearance reflects its passage into the earth’s shadow. The sun set today in Sydney at 20:09.

I’m hooked! The station was easy to spot. It literally flashed into view as a bright point of light, far more dazzling than any planet or star. I’ll definitely look out for it again! As I reflect, I'm reminded of a visit Garry and I made to the Kennedy Space Centre in July 2007. At the time we, saw the Columbus research module undergoing final preparation for launch (see the photo above). The same module now orbits above our heads. Awesome!

It’s also mind-boggling to think that there are six people living inside of that glowing dot at this very moment. Since November 2000, an impressive 204 people have visited the station. It offers a roomy 388 cubic meters of habitable space, roughly the same floor area of a modest suburban house.

UPDATE: January 24, 2013 - 9:30pm
Garry and I have just completed a second successful sighting of the International Space Station.  Once again a dazzling point of light appeared on cue over our apartment.  For two minutes we watched it soar across the night sky, almost directly overhead, at remarkable speed.  Garry was suitably impressed.

This second sighting has also quietly reassured me that I really did spot the station three nights ago.  More sightings are scheduled at a similar time over this week.  We might try our luck again if the weather holds. Stay tuned.

UPDATE: January 25, 2013 - 8:40pm
Garry and I have been at it again.  We made it out onto our balcony this evening at 8:35pm to watch the station pass by.  Even in the relatively bright twilight sky it's still a suprisingly vibrant dot of light.  Tonight's sighting lasted almost five minutes. Very cool.
 

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