Thursday, September 10, 2009

Star-chasers Inc.

      I guess that's good enough a way to describe one of the many things I enjoy doing. Star chasing.   

      Actually I chase satellites more often and I'll explain in a while. As most of my friends (everyone of them in fact) will attest to the fact that I'm an avid nature lover. Everything that has anything to do with the great outdoors. Even the neighbourhood teenagers that I occasionally get to meet. I try my best to introduce them to the marvels of nature and astronomy.

       Now, satellite chasing or tracking is precisely just that, chasing, tracking and watching the satellites as they zoom past above us in the night sky. O.K I can almost hear some of you going "hey, that's not nature, it's man made!' That's what Ling says to me all the time. But you see, to me that IS the wonder of it all. If we didn't have satellites, it be impossible for us to see, know and admire the universe beyond. Think about the Hubble Space Telescope and you'd understand. If we don't send these satellites out there, we're practically saying goodbye to mankind. More on that another time.

Satellite tracking is a marvelous way to admire how far we as the human race have come. Every time I see one, I go 'Whao, that is so cool'. Allow me to share with you how you too can observe these satellites. Frankly it is really easy. If you have a basic understanding of the night sky, you'd have no problems. For those who are really new to this, here's a general rule of thumb. If it twinkles, it's a star. If it stays constant, it's a planet. 

Chances are you've probably seen most of our neighbours in the Solar System already. You just didn't realise what you were looking at. If you are in this part of Asia as I am writing this now, step outside (at night of course) and look straight up. You'd see this really bright 'star' It's the brightest thing around except for the moon which will rise much later. What you are looking at is in fact planet Jupiter
  Jupiter and its 4 moons image :

  Now, if you have a pair of binoculars, use them and have a look at Jupiter. If you can stabilise your hands and observe very carefully you'd be able to see 4 of it's largest moons. The other planets that are easily visible to the naked eye are the brightest of them all, Venus. The red planet Mars. The ringed giant Saturn and the little one Mercury. Here's a good free website to download. You only need to key in your approximate location and it'll point out to you what is exactly above you in real time. It is at .

  You can also use this site to observe stars, galaxies and constellations. Ever wondered what your Zodiac sign actually looks like in the sky? Well go ahead and find out. Satellite are a little different. Mainly because they zoom past so fast. In about 6 minutes or less, it's all over. You need to study the sky chart a little better to really know where to look. The placements of each bright star is vital as you need to use them as markers.


  Get yourself a compass though quite frankly you wouldn't need it if you observe the sky charts and stars. A good watch is a must. O.k, any watch will do, just that you have to set your time accurately. Down to the second. Satellites, just like all celestial objects in the sky are measured in Magnitudes. That basically means brightness. It's rather easy if you understand golf, where a negative number is a good thing. For example, the brightest object in our sky is obviously the Sun. It's magnitude is minus 26.7 (-26.7). Then we have the moon at minus 12.7 (-12.7). The brightest planet, Venus , is at minus 4.4 ( -4.4). So you see, the more positive a number, the more difficult it will be to see it

. The International Space Station. Image:

  Last week, I got to see the International Space Station twice. On most days it's magnitude is around minus 2.0 (-2.0). Here's the best part. The Space Shuttle Discovery was docked to it! So I saw it at mag. -3.1. The excitement of watching it was amazing. To think that there were 13 people up there at that time and the possibility that 2 of them may have been doing maintenance outside as they space walked! Of course I couldn't see the astronauts but the thought that I was watching them from down here was great

! image:

  Yes, sure, there are people out there who see a satellite once and say "So, is that it?" I've had some people say it looks no different from a plane as it approaches the runway for a landing at night with it's main lights on. May be true. May look the same. But to know it's not is the point. I do feel sad when they say that to me. Not for myself but for them. For they don't seem to appreciate what they are seeing. Well to each, his own.

  Here's where you can get those sky charts and information on when the next satellite will be zooming over your night sky. Once again, it is a free website and once again you'd only need to key in your location. You'd also be able to track a whole list of other celestial objects from here. Do try to track the ISS if you can. Or better yet Iridium Flares. I'll write about them later. Go to .

  I just saw 2 satellites yesterday and 3 today. How many will you see?

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