Posts tagged earth

Spot The Station

I was recently asked by a local magazine The Kitchen Draw to write an article about science and/or space. I wrote two articles and the space one won out. It’s about how to spot the International Space Station.  I couldn’t find it on the site as it was print only but I figured I’d post what I wrote here because why not eh? So, without further ado.

Did you know that you can see the International Space Station with the unaided eye? In fact you might have seen it and not even realized it. Let’s start off with what we’re looking at in the first place.

What is the International Space Station?

The ISS is the largest man made structure ever built in space. If you were to lay it on a football field it would extend beyond the boundary lines. It measures some 350ft long and weighs in at over 100 tons. There are currently 6 crew on board but when shuttle was flying, there were as many as 13 on board. Construction on the station was completed in 2011 as the space shuttle went into retirement and it took 12 years to complete.
The purpose of the space station is multifaceted in that we want to know how to build things in space, live in space and conduct science in space. The effects of micro-gravity on the human body aren’t entirely understood and zero-g experiments on Earth are nearly impossible to conduct.


Ok, so, where is it?

It’s in space! OK, more specifically it’s in low earth orbit at an altitude of around 350km (220mi). The average speed of station is around 28000kmh (17,500mph). If that sounds fast, that’s because it is fast. Any slower and it would fall right back to Earth!
The first thing you need to know is when to look. Here’s a site I use which allows you to set up email notifications:

The trick with looking for the ISS is that you can only see it with the naked eye in the morning or in the evening. The reason is that during the height of the day it’s just too bright to see the station. In the middle of the night the station will be in Earth’s shadow. Morning and evening is when you’re catching it in between these two extremes.

Now that you know when too look, you need to know where. Personally, I prefer evening viewing as I’m just not a morning person. The site will give you the option for either or both times of day. When you get a notification it might look confusing but it’s really quite easy once you get the hang of it. The diagram on this page will help to get you oriented but at the very least so long as you which direction to look (i.e. Northwest at 6:52pm) then you’re in pretty good shape.

A view of ISS from my hometown.

A view of ISS from my hometown.

So what are you looking for anyway?

It will initially appear as a slow moving dot and might even look like a plane. This is why you might have seen it and not realized what it was. The thing is, you won’t hear any sound and you won’t see any blinking lights.

What’s in it for me?

As much as I’d like to say it’ll be this massive object with solar panels bulging out and astronauts hanging off of it; it isn’t.

Wait, there is more! Despite it not appearing as more than a bright, fast moving dot, you have to remind yourself there are people inside that dot. They’re passing nearly directly over your head at many times the speed of a bullet. They’re studying everything from material science to medicine to planetary science.

To me that’s awesome enough but there’s one more thing station will do if viewed in the evening; it will pass into Earth’s shadow. It’s quite a sight to see as the white dot slowly takes on a yellow tint, then orange, and finally a deep red before being eclipsed by our home planet.

The take away, for me, is a deeper understanding of our place in the Universe. The ISS is a sort of beacon of humanity and what we can accomplish when we work together. As it is now, the International Space Station is our single outpost in space and will be for some time. Why not take a few minutes of a warm summer evening and gaze upward? It’s a subtle event but it’s worth your time. I’ll never forget the first time I said “Wow… There it is!”

Keep this in mind; This is what you’re seeing

Please watch this video. Set screen to full. Set to the highest resolution your internet can handle and turn it up. You won’t regret it.

We Are Here: The Pale Blue Dot

This all revolves around a photograph taken by a small spacecraft a little over 20 years ago.  Carl Sagan thought for a while it’d be a good idea to have the spacecraft turn around and snap a photo of the Earth.  Fearing damage to the spacecraft the controllers were reluctant.  It was February 14, 1990 and Voyager I had completed all of its primary mission objectives.  Now was the time to have Voyager turn around and snap a photo.  If they had waited much longer the Earth would be too distant to even register.

So here we are.  We are given this photo.

The Pale Blue Dot

The Pale Blue Dot. As taken by Voyager I some 4 billion miles from Earth. February 14, 1990.

It sure doesn’t look like much.  To us, it is everything.  Now, I could go on about this and that regarding the photo.  The thing is, it’s already been done.  In fact, so well done, that to redo or try and out do it would be folly.  Now to read what is said about the photograph is one thing but hearing the voice of Carl Sagan means a little more.  It was his idea, so his words and voice are fitting.

The original audio was from an audio-book I do believe.  Some crafty people have done things with it in videos.  This one is probably the best I’ve found.  It really is moving. (Yes, yes, I posted this video on Facebook a while back, I know.)  So have a look now.

We are here: The Pale Blue Dot

Here is the text:

Consider again, that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

A picture is worth a thousand words, they say;  That one is worth everything we’ve ever known.

Things you probably don’t think about: Why can’t we see Venus overhead at night?

We all know the planets are out there, orbiting tirelessly around the Sun.  How do we know? Well, we can see them, and most with the naked eye!  Something you might not have thought about is why we can see all the planets overhead at night except Venus and Mercury.

Why is that?

Here is the simple answer:  Our orbit is outside of Venus and Mercury’s orbit.  Therefore when they are directly overhead it is daytime to some degree.  Have no fear, I’m a fan of using imagery.  Take a look below.

Inner Solar System

Note: light travels out in all directions obviously and this is not to scale either

So you can see there, when the Sun is overhead, the orbits of Venus and Mercury are also overhead.  Since they never travel outside of the Earth’s orbit, we never see them overhead at night.  Mars on the other hand is commonly visible at night (as is Jupiter and Saturn).  We also go around the Sun faster than Mars so we actually lap it (it goes around every 1.8 Earth years).  Neat huh?

Venus is often called the Morning or Evening Star.  That’s because we see it either before the Sun rises or after the Sun sets, depending on where all the planets are at the time.  After it rises far enough in the morning sky, the sky itself becomes too bright to be able to easily see it.  Though it is possible.  As for setting, it just dips below the horizon.

Just recently we were also able to see Mercury in the evening sky.  The window to capture that rare moment was small; just a couple of weeks I believe.  I snapped a photo which you can see in an earlier post.

So there you have it of something you probably never wondered about in the first place. 🙂

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