Friday, September 4, 2009

Spacecraft in tandem

Next week begins a series of great evening opportunities to watch the International Space Station and the space shuttle Discovery as they sail overhead.

Check out Heavens Above ( website if you want to know what they are from your home. Go to the website and set up a (free) account with your local latitude and longitude.

Together, the ISS and the shuttle look pretty much the same as the ISS on its own: a moving dot of light against the background sky. And, with how large the ISS has become, 240 feet by more than 300 feet, it gets pretty bright. A lot of its brightness comes from those spanning wing-like solar panels.

At its brightest, the ISS gets only a little less bright than Venus. However, on occasion and if the geometry between the sun, the ISS and you is right, you might see it get very bright. There are also other satellites that do this, sometimes spectacularly, called Iridium. More about that at another time.

Right now, the ISS is hosting the USS Discovery, with two crews totalling 13 people sharing close, if weightless quarters. Space flight is a friendly affair.

However, the 13-day mission to resupply and enhance the ISS's science capabilities is set to end at the end of next week when the shuttle returns to Earth. In the meantime, about Tuesday, it should on-dock with the station and begin preparations for its return. From our vantage point, we will actually be able to watch as the ISS and the shuttle cross our night sky.

Whatever you might think of the ISS, beachhead to space or orbiting white elephant, it makes an impression. Joined by the shuttle, there's no doubt human beings are at least on their way into space.

Clear skies!

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