Looking Up: Satellites accompany the starry night

An AIRBIS Defense and Space satellite. [Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. ]
By Peter Becker
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Posted: May. 10, 2019 10:25 am

When I was a kid my mother and I sometimes sat on the front porch on a summer evening and watched the cars go by. We’d have a game where she might count how many red cars go by and I’d count how many blue ones, in a given time and see who’d win.
And you thought TV, computer games and marathon staring at smartphones was fun.
Really, those little games with Mom on the porch were fun, and I miss it. Though I don’t do that anymore, when looking up at the stars I marvel at the traffic going by — in my telescope!
I’m talking about earth satellites.
It doesn’t take long gazing up at the stars in the evening or morning with eyes alone, before you will see a satellite pass through the constellations. They look just like a star except that it is moving past the actual stars. Although they cross the sky at every hour, don’t expect to see any around midnight. At that time the Sun is directly behind you, on the other side of the world, and you are facing into the Earth’s shadow. Satellites go into "total eclipse" as they pass through the shadow.
You’ll never see a satellite traveling east to west. Satellites are launched towards the East to take advantage of the Earth’s spin west to east, to save fuel. Polar satellites, however, are launched to the North or to the South.
If your "satellite" appears double or triple, with multiple colors, it’s a jet. Depending on its track after a jet passes over in the night, about a  minute or so later you may hear the sound. Don’t forget to wave.
Satellites come by in a range of brightness, largely depending on their size and distance. The International Space Station is very bright an unmistakable. It’s always amazing to consider there are astronauts aboard when it orbits overhead.
Sometimes you will see a satellite slowly brightening and dimming at a steady rate as it goes by. This one is a "tumbler" and is probably a spent rocket stage spinning as it reflects back the sunlight.
Users of even small telescopes, however, will really see the space traffic if you look in the right place and time. You don’t see them constantly, but every now and then as you scan the stars with a telescope, you will be able to see much dimmer satellites. It can be fun to try and see the satellite in the eyepiece, tracking it as it crosses over. It will seem to zip past the background stars due to the magnification.
I have found the most satellites in the telescope, looking towards the "meridian," the imaginary line from due south to overhead and back down in the North. These satellites are in a polar orbit.
Interestingly, it was my mother who pointed out my first satellite, in the early years of the space program. It may have been Telstar 1, a communication satellite launch in 1962.
Unlike the cars on the street going by my porch, satellites don’t show different colors. You can make it a sport, star watching with a friend or loved one, to see who spots a satellite first, or a meteor streaking by.
First quarter Moon is on May 11. Early risers can enjoy seeing brilliant planet Jupiter, which in early May is rising around 11 p.m. and is highest in the South around 3 or 4 a.m. Saturn, prominent but not as bright, is over to the left in the Southeast before dawn.
Keep looking up!
— Peter Becker is Managing Editor at The News Eagle in Hawley, PA. Notes are welcome at Please mention in what newspaper or web site you read this column.

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