Stargazers: Viewing Earth-orbiting satellites


Baby boomers may easily recall the first days of space flight. It was an exciting time to be a child. My father would step into the backyard in the evenings to smoke a cigarette, and I would often accompany him to gaze into the starry heavens and wonder.

It was on one of those nights in August 1960 when my dad told me we would see Echo, the first communication satellite, carrying President Eisenhower's voice. As a 9-year-old boy, I imagined watching the satellite pass overhead, hearing Ike's voice booming from the heavens.

I never heard a thing, of course. But on that night I did see my first satellite... and what a thrill that was.

Today, we can see dozens of Earth-orbiting satellites, and watching them has become one of my favorite spring-time activities.

How does one know when and where to look? With the Internet and smartphones, it's really quite easy. While you can find many apps that provide times and locations of satellite visibility, my favorite website for predicting satellite passes is Heavens Above.

On the site, not only will you see which satellites will pass over your neighborhood, but also you'll find the local times of sunset, sunrise, and twilight, the phases of the moon and much more. Take a few minutes to register — for free — on the website, and it'll make your future visits much more productive and enjoyable.

To use these features, you must first tell the program where you're located — either by selecting your town from its massive database or, for more precision, by entering your latitude and longitude.

Once you do this, you can easily learn the details of upcoming satellite passes. My favorite feature is the time of a satellite's maximum altitude: a full sky map that shows a satellite's path across the familiar constellation outlines.

Now let's say, for example, that you discover the International Space Station or the Hubble Space Telescope will be making a bright pass tonight and you'd like to see it.

First, make sure your clock is set to the correct time. Next, go outdoors a few minutes early and keep watch along the satellite's projected path. Look for a "star" that appears to be drifting slowly in the correct direction. Don't be fooled by the blinking red and green lights — this is not a satellite!

You can easily photograph an Earth-orbiting satellite, too. Put your camera on a sturdy tripod, aim it toward one of the constellations along the satellite's path. Focus to infinity (turn your lens to manual focus and rotate the focus ring completely left or right), set your aperture wide open, set your ISO to 400, 800 or higher, and set your exposure to manual. Take some test exposures just before the satellite appears so you can adjust your settings if needed.

When the satellite comes into frame, trip the shutter until the satellite has passed completely. The satellite will be captured as a streak crossing the stars, which, depending on the length of your exposure, may appear as multiple streaks.

It's sure great fun to watch satellites pass overhead, and even more fun to know which ones you're seeing. My dad would be thoroughly amazed!

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