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.

A few weeks earlier, a co-worker had come into the office chirping excitedly about this new Web site he'd found: Heavens- Above. Put in your location and time zone (using either your latitude and longitude, which seems excessively detailed to me, or plotting your home on an Internet map), and it shows you which satellites are passing overhead, and when.

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.