Heavens AboveFebruary 6, 2010
Here’s one of those “How did I not blog about this sooner!?” things: Heavens-Above.com. If you’ve heard of it before, it’s probably for the International Space Station flyover predictions, which are indeed great. But the site has loads more useful stuff; it’s basically one-stop shopping for the shallow sky* observing.
*If deep sky objects are multiple and variable stars, clusters, nebulae, and galaxies, then shall0w sky objects are those within the solar system–planets and moons, comets, asteroids, and artificial satellites.
So what’s good there?
First off, loads of info on how, when, and where to spot artificial satellites, including the ISS, Hubble, and Iridium flares. Iridium satellites are part of a big fleet of communications satellites. They have absolutely immense solar panels that produce extremely bright flashes of light, called flares, when they fly over. And there are dozens of these things in orbit, so they fly over fairly often. Flares often get as bright as magnitude -8, and sometimes hit -9.5, which is many times brighter than any planet under any condition, and almost as bright as the first quarter moon. Heavens-Above will tell you when and where to look, you just have to register (free) and put in your location.
Second, finder charts for the brighter asteroids and whatever comets are currently within reach of amateur equipment. If you’re working on the AL Galileo Club and you’ve been sweating how you were going to finish the comet observation requirement, here’s your ticket.
Third, loads of data on the Sun, Moon, and planets, including a cool solar system chart that shows where all the planets are in relation to each other right now (incidentally, this chart shows at a glance why we’re as close to Mars right now as we’re going to get on this pass, but not nearly as close as we get on other passes).
Fourth, an all-sky chart that shows what the sky looks like over your head, right this minute (weather notwithstanding), plus cool charts of all the constellations.
Fifth, whatever other goodies may be lurking in the links I haven’t gotten around to clicking yet. Seriously, just go there, register, and start playing.
I was first directed to Heavens-Above ages ago, and I’ve had it bookmarked forever, but I forget to go there. Not anymore! Late last fall my family and I watched the ISS fly right over our house, almost from horizon to horizon. My wife and I even got to see it through my 6-inch telescope. Even at low power, 33x, which I needed to keep a wide field for tracking, it was clearing a thing and not just a point of light. In fact, there were two bright thingies with a smaller, dimmer thingy between them–the solar panels and habitation modules, respectively. Some amateur astronomers have gotten pretty darn good images of the ISS and often the shuttle with it, using hand-guided telescopes and webcams. I haven’t tried that yet, but one of these days…
I’m telling you all this now because my buddy Jarrod has been checking out H-A, and tonight he went out and photographed an Iridium flare! He writes:
It was BRIGHT. The prediction was for -8 magnitude, as we were only 2.5 km off the center of the flare, and it was every bit of that. We weren’t sure what to expect, but it did NOT disappoint.
I set the camera up for a long exposure. This was 99 seconds at f/11, ISO400 at 18mm. I cropped the one pic down to this, the other’s a small version of the full-width shot. I had the lens as wide as I could get, because I didn’t have much confidence it my aiming. But now that I know that with the compass and clinometer apps being this accurate (as you can see how close to center it was) I’ll zoom the sucker in next time.
Anyway, it was cool as hell to see. Sydney [his daughter] really seemed to get a kick out of it (it was REALLY bright and easy to spot). It was a fun thing to get us all out on the back porch for.
That’s his photo at the top. Now you know what you need to do…whaddaya waitin’ around here for?