December 18, 2017

AstroChallenge: Hunting the Vanguards.

Vanguard 1, the “Flying Grapefruit.” (Credit: NASA).

Looking for something new in the realm of satellite hunting? A few weeks ago, a discussion popped up on Twitter for the possibility of spotting an elusive set of targets still in space. In early 1958, the United States orbited the Vanguard 1 spacecraft, the first of a series of three successful launches of Project Vanguard and only the second successful object placed in orbit by the United States following Explorer 1. What’s really remarkable, though, is that Vanguards 1 through 3 and some associated hardware are still in orbit, and will remain there for over two centuries! These were some of the first objects tracked by the old project Moonwatch of the 1950’s fame… and today, we’ll talk about how YOU can still see them in orbit.

First, the good news; all three satellites are roughly on 130 minute orbits at about 32-34° degree inclinations, meaning that they cross a good visible swath of the planet. The bad news is that they are all on elliptical orbits and tiny… Vanguard 3 is the largest, at 2.5 x 0.5 meters, and Vanguard 1 is only about 0.2 meters in diameter. (One Project Moonwatcher was known to exclaim “they couldn’t put anything bigger up there?”) This means that under even perfect conditions, they never break naked eye visibility under even pristine dark skies… So, how do you nab them? Simple; you let the satellites come to you! The outstanding site CALSky lets you track satellite passes near bright stars and planets; simply load in your location, and aim your binoculars and/or telescope and watch around the appointed time. I once spotted the errant tool bag lost by ISS astronauts during a spacewalk using this method a few years back… I simply listened to WWV radio for accurate time hacks, lay back in a lawn chair and aimed my trusty Canon 15x45IS binocs at Spica, and there it was, instant orbiting tool pouch! Good luck hunting these relics of the early Space Age, and if anyone is ambitious enough to catch an image or video of the Vanguard sats, let us know about it!

The Astronomy Word Of the Week is: Geocentric Orbit. This is simply one of the many breeds of orbit that has our planet at one foci. The Vanguard series were placed in looping, highly eccentric elongated geocentric orbits ranging from a perigee around 509 to 650 kilometers to an apogee of 3000 to 4235 kilometers. This also assures they remain elusive, as their apparent brightness can vary dramatically. The Vanguards were designed to study the effects of micrometeorite strikes and atmospheric drag as well as characterize the extent of the newly discovered Van Allen radiation belts. Objects in Low Earth, Geosynchronous, Geostationary and grave yard or transfer orbits are all sub-types of your basic Geocentric orbit.

 

Trackbacks

  1. [...] the fun is sleuthing out what you’re seeing. Hey, some relics of space history such as the early Vanguards, Telstars, and Canada’s first satellite Alouette-1 are still up there! Nabbing these [...]

  2. [...] The Vanguards: launched in starting in 1958 by a United States, The 3 Vanguard satellites paint a oldest pieces of tellurian artifacts in Earth orbit, and they aren’t due for reentry for another dual centuries. [...]

  3. [...] The Vanguards: launched in starting in 1958 by a United States, The 3 Vanguard satellites paint a oldest pieces of tellurian artifacts in Earth orbit, and they aren’t due for reentry for another dual centuries. [...]

  4. [...] The Vanguards: launched in starting in 1958 by the United States, The three Vanguard satellites represent the oldest bits of human artifacts in Earth orbit, and they aren’t due for reentry for another two centuries. [...]

  5. [...] The Vanguards: launched in starting in 1958 by a United States, The 3 Vanguard satellites paint a oldest pieces of tellurian artifacts in Earth orbit, and they aren’t due for reentry for another dual centuries. [...]

  6. [...] are still in orbit and can been seen with a good pair of binoculars and a little patience , Vanguards 1, 2 & 3. It could be argued that Operation Moonwatch provided a civilian means to monitor the goings on of [...]

  7. [...] in the Space Age, and satellites were frequently placed in orbits that would last for centuries. Vanguard 1, for example, was launched in 1958 and is still in orbit as the oldest human artifact circling [...]

  8. [...] in the Space Age, and satellites were frequently placed in orbits that would last for centuries. Vanguard 1, for example, was launched in 1958 and is still in orbit as the oldest human artifact circling [...]

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