The Spaceships of 2001


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MIR as seen from the space shuttle Atlantis in 1996. (NASA photo).

One evening late last year, I left my Manhattan office and started walking down Park Avenue. Glancing up at the sky, I noticed a bright point of light passing overhead and slowly fading as it sunk towards the southeast. I immediately realized, based on previous experience, that I was looking at a space station—either Mir (it had been reported in the previous day’s news that Russia had given up on Mir and would in a matter of months plunge it into the Pacific) or the International Space Station (ISS). When I got home, I checked the Heavens Above web page ( www.heavens-above.com ), which has information on where and when to see bright satellites. Sure enough, I found I had been looking at Mir.

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The year 2001 is finally here, but there are no spaceliners, let alone Pan Am to fly them. No lunar colonies. No black monoliths, no psychedelic stargates. The only craft to have visited Jupiter are spindly and unmanned, and as far as we know, their computers aren’t psychotic. There are no giant wheels spinning in orbit to the tune of Strauss waltzes. But there are space stations; for the next month, perhaps, there are still two of them.

* * *
As urban observers, light pollution can impose severe restrictions on what we are able to see. This can prove particularly frustrating to newcomers to amateur astronomy, or those with minimal equipment or without a decent observing site. However, the brightest satellites, particularly the space stations and the Shuttle, can be easily seen without optical aid, and can provide a moving and thought-provoking look into the High Frontier, the extension of humanity’s questing spirit into Earth’s orbit, and sometimes the feeling of history in the making; over a three-day span in early February, I watched the Space Shuttle Atlantis from launch through rendezvous and docking with the ISS. On Wednesday, February 7, from the top of the Empire State Building, I saw the Shuttle (a probable sighting) just after launch as it rocketed up the East Coast, just skirting the southeastern horizon before its main engine burned out and it was plunged into darkness. (This was thanks to Joe Rao’s predictions.) The following night, from my neighborhood of Ridgewood, Queens, I watched the ISS pass nearly overhead, to be followed a few minutes later by the Shuttle; both rivaled Jupiter when at their brightest. Two nights later, I saw the linked Shuttle-ISS pass overhead, shortly after the deployment of the Destiny science module. Binoculars, though, showed them only as a single point of light.

The Heavens-Above web site, as well as several others, gives information regarding satellite passes, including expected brightness, passage times and trajectories, even maps showing the path the satellite will take across the constellations.

The space stations tend to be visible in cycles, with a couple of weeks of morning passes visible from a given location, followed by a string of evening passes. If it has not yet been crashed into the Pacific, Mir will be in the evening sky in early March; this will likely be its last period of visibility. Particularly promising are the passes of March 9 and 10, when it is high in the sky with a magnitude of about –1.



E-mail to tonyhoffman [at] earthlink.net