March 28, 2017

20.01.11: The Return of NanoSail-D2.

NanoSail-D2 and FASTSAT over North America tonight, January 2th at about 18:16 EST. (Created by author in Orbitron).

Never say die… a satellite that was written off as dead in space may be making a comeback. Yesterday, at 11:30AM EST, Marshall Space Flight engineers received confirmation that NanoSail-D2 did in fact eject from FASTSAT. NanoSail-D2 was one of the miniaturized payloads launched aboard FASTSAT from the Kodiak Island launch complex on November 20th, 2010, and was to deploy December 6th. [Read more...]

Spotting Space Launches; Prime Sites for Free Viewing.

New Horizons Launch! (Credit & Copyright: Ben Cooper, ).

 (Credit & Copyright: Ben Cooper, ).

   I’m always surprised how many everyday (i.e. non-space buffs!) I meet that fail to realize that space shots are visible to millions on almost a monthly basis. It’s almost as if the space program is this exotic thing that happens in strange and remote places, far from the eyes of the general public. But the reality is that it may be easier to spy a launch than you might think, and anyone can easily see the International Space Station or the Space Shuttle with the naked eye while it’s in orbit. There are about a half dozen spaceports worldwide that see at least monthly action, but for this post, we’ll talk about the two most famous; Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and the Kennedy Space Center. 

Last year, we were able to attend the STS-125 launch at the KSC; prices for general admission currently go for about $38 dollars US. Viewing was from the visitor center complex grounds, and while I wouldn’t deter anyone from the experience, we were still quite some distance away! You won’t see the shuttle sitting on the pad, and it will only be visible seconds after it clears the tree-line. It’s interesting to note that while the mainstream media generally ignores the manned spaceflight program, tickets for launch viewing also tend to sell out fast. In fact, if the quick sellout of tickets for next week’s STS-132 mission are any indication, a vast counter-movement of space enthusiasts exists that isn’t being served by the mass media. In fact, STS-132 viewing tickets appeared on EBay at magnitudes above the sale price hours after the sellout!

Launch of Atlantis STS-98. (Credit: NASA/Pat. McCracken).

Launch of STS-98. (Credit: NASA/Pat McCracken).

The good news is you don’t have to sell the car (or a kidney) to see a launch. Several off-site areas exist where you can spy launches. If you find yourself along the Florida space coast or in the Orlando area, I invite you to keep an eye on the sky… we can even spot launches from the backyard of Astroguyz HQ, about 100 miles to the west! What follows are some tips and advice, both official and unofficial, from readers, followers, sources and personal trial and error experiences.

The first and foremost thing you’re going to want is information. When is the next launch? SpaceFlightNow is a daily “must look at” for us; it updates launches and schedules of spaceports worldwide. Keep in mind; there are only three shuttle launches left in the program! Unmanned launches are always cool as well, and look dramatically different in appearance as their payload is generally lighter than the multi-million ton shuttle. Launches out of the Cape also tend to have a more easterly track out to sea, while shuttle launches have to match up with the International Space Station in its 51.6° degree orbit and thus follow a more northeasterly track up the U.S. seaboard. For in-the-field satellite tracking, I point you towards the outstanding stand-alone free-ware resource Orbitron; just remember to update those TLEs occasionally to assure currency. Celestrak is also another ultimate resource for data, and CALsky will even give you custom built e-mail alerts for such events as dockings, solar and lunar transits, and decaying satellites. And don’t forget to follow @Astroguyz on Twitter for the latest launch updates!

Waterway to Orbit

“Waterway to Orbit”  (Credit & Copyright:  James Vernacotola). 

The official NASA page lists some areas of interest for off-site viewing: It also mentions that audio transmissions for amateur radio operators are at 146.94 MHz and boaters can tune to Channel 16 VHF-FM for Coast Guard instructions on restricted areas during launch. Keep in mind, boats aren’t allowed north of mile marker 15 on the Banana River, and photography from a moving boat may be tricky, though not impossible.

An interesting site complete with diagramed maps comes to us via Peter Vidani and his Space Shuttle Launch Viewing Recommendations. He notes that Port Canaveral has the optimal viewing locale for launches out of the Cape, but may be used for KSC launches as well. Parrish Park is noted as another prime site, as it is only 12 miles from launch pad 39A. Construction at the Max Brewer Bridge has, however, limited parking. He also notes that while Space View Park is wired up with an audio feed from Mission Control; arrive early, as it gets very crowded!

Veteran launch photographer Ben Cooper also echoes the above, stating that; “Space View Park is definitely a fan favorite, because it has trees and monuments and a pier…a very nice place compared to just being at the side of the road or something. (As for) Tips and tricks…get there early, earlier is always better even if it is too early, you can’t go wrong getting a good spot. Everyone arrives at different times but leaves at once, so expect major traffic jams after the launch or scrub.” Make sure you are also flexible in your viewing plans, as launches can and do frequently scrub. High profile launches, such as last year’s Hubble repair or the final up-and-coming shuttle flight draw the largest crowds, but even a run of the mill telecommunications launch can be interesting… you might even catch something unusual, such as when the Solar Dynamics Observatory “pierced” a solar halo during launch earlier this year! Mr. Cooper’s site also gives an excellent rundown of Titusville viewing areas, as well as examples of his own launch photography.


SDO and Sundog! (Credit: NASA/Anne Keslosky).

Generally speaking, a night launch will provide a better contrast against the night sky; I usually shoot a few calibration shots before launch to have some idea of what shutter speeds I can get away with; remember, digital film is cheap. My usual setup is a video camera mounted and running on a tripod and a hand held DSLR, with NASA TV running in the background. Keep in mind that NASA TV does have a time delay; you may well see the shuttle a few seconds before launch is broadcast. Dawn and dusk launches are the ultimate, such as the recent outstanding STS-131 launch. Keep an eye on the sky directly afterwards, as glowing neon clouds may be seen high in the Earth’s atmosphere. These are the results of condensation in the wake of a launch contrail, and can be equally photogenic.

Some photography tricks I’ve learned, sometimes the hard way, are as follows;

-          Be ready and flexible for changing light conditions; a night-time launch can quickly turn into daytime conditions. I always shoot on manual, and try to pre-focus on a bright planet or the Moon if available.

-          Know your equipment: this is a basic one that’s often overlooked. Give all gear a through “shakedown” before launch day and make sure all batteries are topped off… in astrophotography, the devil frequently lurks in the details!

-          Scout out a good foreground; scenery can make a good photo great. Such landmarks as the Disney castle, the Intracoastal Waterway Bridge in Ponte Vedra, palm trees, or the Moon add individuality to a shot. Check the azimuth of the launch pad against your viewing position so you know where the launch will be visible before hand; if you use the same sight frequently, note any land marks for future use.

-          Finally, don’t shoot video in the vertical position! I know this from my own experience; I failed to realize during the STS-125 launch that the software wouldn’t “de-rotate” the video the same as stills. Hey we’re big enough to admit our own mistakes.

-          Binocs are handy for sighting booster separations; I’ve seen the SRB detachment from a 100 miles away with our Canon IS 15x45s.

-          And don’t forget those non-photography related issues; be prepared for heat, UV, and bugs in the summer; Florida nights in the winter can be surprisingly chilly. Twitter follower @Dangerbarrow ) suggests packing a lunch, arriving several hours early and viewing from Titusville on the river would a fine way to spend a launch spotting-day.   

Off beat viewing suggestions? Here are a few unique ideas that readers have batted our way;

Why not view the launch from a kayak? Adventure Central offers a unique tour viewing from Mosquito Lagoon that gives you an unrestricted and unique vantage point.  While not free, the $32 is a fraction of the KSC viewing price. Thanks to our friend Donna Frose teaching in Quito, Ecuador for sending this one our way!

Florida residents can also write their congress-person and request to view a launch; most elected officials in Florida recognize the value of the space industry and are thrilled to give their constituents a chance to see it in action, up close. Thanks to Ruth Arnold in Miami for bringing this to our attention.

Finally, why not join a NASAtweetup? These media events are raffled off periodically, and provide up-close access to launches and interviews with astronauts. Entry is open to anyone over 18 years of age with a Twitter account; simply follow the NASAtweetup page religiously, as event notifications frequently come and go.

And speaking of which, we here at Astroguyz are T-minus one week until departure for the STS-132 launch and the NASAtweetup! Follow this space as we track Atlantis in its final flight to the International Space Station…we promise we’ll keep the video camera in horizontal mode this time!     


STS-131 launch as seen from Astroguyz HQ! (Photo by Author).  

Editor’s Note: And for those partaking in a day tour of the KSC, check out these money saving tips from Wise!

Satellite Spotting: A Quick How-to Guide.

Two objects you can see tonite; the Hubble Space Telescope & (if it's in orbit) the Space Shuttle! (Credit: Art Explosion).
Two objects you can see tonite; the Hubble Space Telescope & (if it’s in orbit) the Space Shuttle! (Credit: Art Explosion).

Go out any reasonably clear night around dawn or dusk and look up. Chances are, after a few minutes, a moving “star” will drift silently by. What you’ve just seen is a satellite in low Earth orbit, a symbol of our modern technological age. Many are truly surprised by this sight when I point it out at star parties; I always check for bright passes before I load the ‘scope in the car. Some are active; many are space junk or discarded boosters. A very few, like the Space Shuttle or the International Space Station, may have human eyes staring back at you; and an occasional rare spy satellite may even have electronic eyes of a more sinister nature.  This week, we’re going to discuss the astronomical sub-pursuit of “satellite spotting,” a pastime that anyone can quickly engage in with a minimum of gear and know how. All you really need is a set of eyes, patience, and knowledge of when and where to look. A good Internet connection (hey, you’re reading this, right?) and a pair of binoculars can up your game a notch, as you’ll soon see.

          Satellite spotting used to be a matter of national security. As recounted in Patrick McCray’s Keep Watching the Skies! Operation Moonwatch  recruited amateur spotters to keep tabs on the Russians, as our country found itself woefully unprepared for a potential “red menace from space”. This had its roots in pre-space age aircraft spotters placed along the U.S. coasts by the Civil Air Patrol. Moonwatch officially ended in 1975, but many aficionados liked what they saw, and kept up their skills via ham radio, home stapled newsletters, and various other pre-Internet modes of communiqué. Some can even still get the political goat of a space faring nation or two. For instance, in 1990 satellite spotters reported the classified shuttle deployed payload MISTY as alive and well, much to the chagrin of the U.S. government who had hoped to perhaps use the cover story of a failed launch to put the new breed of spy satellite in orbit.  Conversely, amateurs have been able to quickly confirm and/or deny such recent space age hopefuls as Iran and North Korea in their fortrays into space.

And of course, satellites have been the source of a good many UFO sightings over the years. Some, such as the ever-growing International Space Station, can appear brighter than Venus! Iridium flares are also splendid sights, often brightening up to magnitude -8 before fading out of sight.

Depiction of a Satellite Pass. (Created by Author).

Depiction of a Satellite Pass. (Created by Author).

So, you ask, how can I see these splendid sights? The best time is local dawn or dusk; even after the Sun has set on the Earth’s surface, it’s still shining and reflecting off of objects high over head. Anything that’s visible to the naked eye will be at least several meters across and in low Earth orbit about 50-200 miles up. At that height, things move around the Earth about once every 90 minutes. Fun fact: did you know that Sputnik I was invisible to the naked eye? The vision of folks gathering on their porches to witness this silent messenger of the Space Age now persists in our collective mythos; such a depiction was even shown in the movie October Sky. What most people saw was, in fact, the spent but much larger booster that put it there!

In any event, like much of astronomy, knowing what that moving dot is adds to the moment. At very least, it might help explain grandpa Jeb’s most current UFO sighting…. Here’s where ye ole Internet comes into play. Basically, you’ll need three pieces of information for a successful identification. What time an object is passing over, what’s its max altitude or elevation, and its position, or azimuth along the horizon. Match these up, and you’ve got yourself a successful sighting. Visual characteristics are handy; satellites do not blink (that’s a plane) or leave a fiery trail (that’s a meteor) unless, of course, the satellite itself is re-entering. Anyhow, when Astroguyz wants to know what’s up in the man-made sky, here’s where we turn;

Heavens-Above : This is the ultimate clearing house for online local astronomy; once you’ve got your local latitude, longitude and elevation preset in, it’ll predict passes in an easy to read format. This is a fine starting point and introduction to satellite tracking. The only drawback it has is they can be a bit slow on updates for recent launches.

Orbitron: this is an uber-cool applet that installs onto your computer; once configured, it’ll operate in the field, sans internet connection, a huge plus. The trick is to occasionally update the Two-Line Elements from time to time, as new stuff gets launched and old stuff decays; I find once a month is adequate or more frequently if it’s a rapidly evolving situation, like a recent Shuttle launch. Orbitron is the only true stand-alone, satellite simulation free-ware out there; you can even set it to chirp when a satellite enters or leaves the local sky! It’ll even take hand-loaded TLE’s with a little skill; the only objection would be the need for a possible addition of local constellations in overhead mode.   

Space Weather: If you want dirt simple, Space Weather’s simple satellite tracker is it; simply plug in your zip code for Canadian and US users, or  locale for international, and out comes the local flybys in a no fuss format. Even grampy Jeb could use it!

Spaceflight Now: A good place to track goings on in terms of recent and upcoming launches; Spaceflight Now publishes all worldwide launches right down to the communication satellite that currently brings such trailer park opuses as “Wife Swap” and “Monster Truck Mania” into your house. And their live chat and twitter feed  is indispensible for real time updates.

NASA: It can take some digging, but NASA publishes ground tracks for shuttle re-entries which can be copied and overlaid on Google Earth to aid with possible sightings.

So, what strange beasties are there in the satellite world? While not all inclusive, here’s a short list of what to look out for;

Manned missions: these are the ones that really stir the Buck Rodgers in all of us. It’s just plain neat to think that someone’s chasing zero-g M & Ms around the cabin, right over head. These days, most manned missions revolve around the International Space Station, but expect that to change as we return to the Moon later this decade.

Iridium and other flares: In the mid-90’s, Motorola launched a constellation of communications satellites designed for Sat-phone linkups. These sport three each solar panels that are refrigerator-sized and highly reflective, and if they catch the Sun just right, a brilliant flare will occur, sometimes up to -8 magnitude! Heavens-Above is a great site for predicting these, and you seldom have to wait more than a week to sight a flare from your locale.   

Space junk: After monitoring satellites a bit, you begin to realize just how crowded it’s getting up there. A great many objects in orbit are derelict, mostly boosters used to put satellites in odd or highly inclined orbits. And some can be downright unique, like the tool kit “dropped” by astronaut Heidi Stefanyshyn-Piper last year while working outside of the ISS!

Spy and satellite constellations: Yes, there is some strange goings on in Earth orbit; satellite constellations, such as the NOSS series, are some of the weirdest (and rarest) things you’ll see in the manmade sky. These will look like a group of satellites moving in formation. I’ve seen this only once from North Pole, Alaska, and believe me, it’s a bizarre sight!     

Dumps, dockings and re-entries: If you’re persistent (and lucky) you may be able to witness a docking/undocking of the Shuttle or Soyuz with the ISS. Generally, these happen either two days before launch or landing… following the missions via streaming NASA TV  can come in handy to catch this. Does the Shuttle or ISS look a bit of a fuzzy halo or trail? You might have been lucky enough to catch a fluid dump, which can look pretty cool if you catch it just right. Re-entries of the Shuttle used to be common place, but after the Columbia disaster in 2003, are now less frequent. The shuttle now almost exclusively supports the ISS, which means it must match orbits with the station. Reentry now generally comes in over Central and South America. And of course, unscheduled reentries can happen any time!

So, you’ve seen the pretty moving dots and you want more? The sub genre of satellite spotting is always open to expansion and innovation;

Binocular spotting: A good many objects are out of naked eye visual grasp; a good pair of binocs will aid you in this task. To be effective, it’s helpful to know when a satellite is whizzing by a bright star. Simply aim at the star at the appointed time, and watch the object zip by. I successfully spotted the aforementioned errant tool bag this way! Wide field imaging around the Orion Nebula region some times of year can even turn up geosynchronous satellites, which give themselves away by their slow up and down nodding motion.  

Tracking and photography: A simple way to photograph a satellite pass or flare is to lock the shutter open as your quarry drifts by; a more difficult method is to video or photograph the target at higher magnification through the telescope. Setups can range from sophisticated computer tracking mounts to low tech manual setups; simply aim, keep the satellite in the crosshairs, and hope you nabbed a frame or two for later extraction. Both the Shuttle and the ISS are large enough to show telescopic detail. Another tried and true method is to fix on an object such as the Sun (with proper filter in place!) or Moon and let the satellite come to you. This has the advantage of being possible in the daylight, or when the satellite is not illuminated, although the object moves quick, less than ½ a second across the solar or lunar disk! CALsky can be configured to give you local e-mail alerts for transits in your area.  

Reporting: sure, these days, everybody’s got a blog; but it can also be a great way to get your sightings out. Also, Spaceweather is very approachable for amateur photography submissions, and their Spaceweather Flash routinely posts all things astronomical.

So there you have it, the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of satellite spotting. And unlike some exotic fields of amateur astronomy-dom, this is something you can do tonight with very little startup! Remember, the sky is waiting… and tracking the comings and goings of human and technological activity in orbit can be fun for the whole family to enjoy.

Drama in low Earth orbit! (Credit: STS-51A/NASA).

Drama in low Earth orbit! (Credit: STS-51A/NASA).

Astro-Event of the Week: 05.11.09: See STS-125 dock with Hubble!


The pic says it all…(Credit: NASA).

First; the good news. This week’s potential launch of Atlantis on STS-125 for it’s much delayed servicing mission (the 4th and final) to the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) will provide spectacular views, both of the initial launch along the Space Coast of Florida and the dawn and dusk skies as it chases the orbiting observatory. Now for the bad; the current orbit of Hubble is positioned such that most of the northern hemisphere won’t see the action! The HST is inclined at a 28.5 degree orbit, far different than the normal 51.6 degree orbit the shuttle orbiters must attain to dock with the ISS. [Read more...]

Astro Event of the Week 9-16th, 2008.



    Welcome to a new weekly feature here at Astroguyz… each Monday, our goal will be to present some new and interesting celestial event that you can see from your own backyard. If the event is happening anytime from Monday evening, US East Coast time, up through early next Monday, you’ll read about it here. We’ll also tie in a vocabulary “astro-word of the week.” So, as Fat Albert says, “If you’re not careful, you just might learn something before it’s done!” [Read more...]

Science on Your Desktop

Last week’s answer: Our luckless Venus transit astronomer was none other than 18th century French scientist Guillaume Le Gentil. Had he been successful, he would have no doubt been a more recognizable name today!

 SETI Classic.

SETI Classic.

  When nights turn cloudy, we here at Astroguyz head for ye’ ole Internet. The proliferation of online science programs has exploded in the past decade. [Read more...]