University Lowbrow Astronomers

What Satellite is That?

by Christopher Sarnecki
Printed in Reflections: June, 1999
Revised November, 2001.

Years ago I attended a program at Abrams Planetarium on the campus of Michigan State University as they were putting their new Digistar planetarium through its paces. After the presentation we were whisked outside to watch the Mir spacecraft fly over our local place on the globe. Right on cue the Mir appeared in the northwestern sky, moved with determination overhead, then quickly disappeared in the Earth’s shadow. I thought it was pretty neat how the staff was able to predict exactly were the satellite would appear and move across the sky.

Now you can do the same. Plus, you can predict many more visual satellite sightings with complete confidence. All you have to do is access the Heavens Above Satellite Visibility Home Page at The German Space Operations Centre (GSOC) maintains this site and is part of the Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR) in Oberpfaffenhofen, Germany. The GSOC Satellite Visibility Home Page will predict visible satellite passes from any place on the Earth. Some of the significant features of this site are: Daily satellite predictions at brighter than mag 4.5. Charts identifying the satellite rise/set times (in local daylight times), elevation, and azimuth angles. Mir and International Space Station in real time, graphic display. Iridium flares, both nighttime and daytime. Sun and Moon rise/set data. Select from numerous locations or log your lat/long like I did, save it, then bookmark the page for future use (use All this and more in an easy, user-friendly web site. Click on highlighted rise times and detailed visible pass chart appears. Click on the name of the satellite and a description with a picture of the object appears. It doesn’t get any easier than this, folks.

Those of you that know me know I like my astronomy big and chunky. Recently I accessed the GSOC Satellite home page, called up the real time Mir display and noticed Mir would be passing directly overhead in just a few minutes. The Mir, traveling at over 27,000 km/hr, was a couple minutes late. How did I know this? Well, it seems a -7 mag! Iridium flare appeared in the western sky and it was right on time. If you have never seen an Iridium flare, it is a momentary flash of light caused by Sun light reflecting off the reflections of the main mission antennas, which are large, flat and highly polished aluminum surfaces, of one of the numerous Iridium communication satellites that now orbit the Earth. Hope I never see this in the telescope. That would wreck the night vision for hours. Well I would like to stay and chat some more, but right now I have to go outside and observe some more satellites.

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