July 6, 2008
Go and Do: Satellite Spotting
By Maggie Gill-Austern
Last Monday night, I had a date with Envisat, the European Space Agency's Earth-watching satellite. At about 9:20, I got up, put on my shoes and went outside to wait on the sidewalk outside my apartment, looking up at the sky.
He e-mailed me the Web address - www.heavens-above.com - and then talked me through using it.
I put in my address, finding it on a map. I put in my time zone. And then, rerouted to Heavens-Above's homepage, I took a gander at the astronomical occurrences I'd be able to see. In addition to several satellites and their iridium flares (sunlight-reflections off shiny satellite bits), there was information about visible comets and planets to choose from.
All very nifty, I thought. But the right moment - requiring a confluence of night-time free time and a sky that wasn't entirely covered in thunderheads - didn't occur until this week when, on Monday, the sky was cloudless, it was 8:30 p.m. and I found myself at home.
I went online again, and found that while the International Space Station wasn't passing nearby that night (that I could see, anyway), Envisat would be coming along shortly after dark. It was a date!
And what I date, I learned. Envisat is very accomplished. Launched in 2002, it orbits the Earth and gathers tons of data. According to the ESA Web site (http://envisat.esa.int/category/ index.cfm?fcategoryid=61), it provides full coverage of the globe every one to three days. It's been used to monitor polar ice caps, the Earth's oceans and even the destruction caused by a huge forest fire in Norway this June.
And I would be able to see it passing overhead in just an hour.
The big challenge, I thought, would be looking at the right spot to see it. From what I gathered from the strip of numbers across my computer screen, Envisat would only be visible for several minutes - which sounds like a long time, but not, I thought, if I were looking in the wrong place. A map on Heavens-Above illustrated its path across the sky, and I spent a while figuring out just where it should be when it passed overhead.
And then I went outside to wait for it.
The minutes before it appeared seemed to take forever, and I kept worrying about missing it. Then 9:28 finally struck, and I looked up, craning my neck.
I leaned back even farther, staring up past a very bright street light at the still-deep-blue sky, sharp disappointment already beginning to kick in. Nothing.
And then I turned around, and there it was.
Tiny, itty bitty, extremely high up. I had been looking in the wrong spot all along.
It inched across the sky slowly - at rather the same pace as a turtle, by appearances, although clearly, in reality, it was moving much faster than I'll ever go in my entire life at 16,632 miles per hour.
Almost unimaginable speed, for a human.
Eventually, Envisat passed behind a cloud, disappearing from sight.
I walked inside, elated that I'd seen it.
And wondering if it had seen me.
Originally published by Staff Writer.
(c) 2008 Sun-Journal Lewiston, Me.. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.