Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Faster Than a Speeding Bullet

Yesterday morning the fine folks at North Country Public Radio did a spot on astronomical things to look for in the current night sky. Jupiter was featured, with its several moons (visible with binocs - although you should put them on a tripod to hold them steady), but the biggie was The Space Station. Yes - according to their guest astronomer (Jeff Miller, physics and astronomy prof. at St. Lawrence University) if we went out at 8:10 last night and looked towards the western horizon, we should see the Space Station as it cruised northeastward across the night sky at the mind-boggling speed of 17,000 mph!

So, last night, as Toby and I returned from our night walk, I made a couple phone calls to neighbors who also like celestial things. At 7:50 PM I headed down the street, armed with my binocs. I stopped and looked at Jupiter - a tripod is a really good idea. I didn't have one, so Jupiter was bouncing all over the place. I could see maybe one moon at about "7:00" to Jupiter. I picked up one of my neighbors and we headed to The Scenic Overlook - just down the street. We took up our spots behind the monument, blocking out the light from the dozen or so street lights in the immediate area, and waited.

Bracing our binocs against the stones of the monument, we could finally make out about four of Jupiter's moons: at 3:00, 5:00, and two at 7:00. We watched something presumably man-made zip across the sky, from the middle of the dome overhead down towards north, where it vanished. We suspect it was a satellite.

And we waited.

Ten minutes can really drag when you are waiting for something exciting to happen.

And sure enough, at 8:10 PM I saw something large, bright and red shoot out above the silhouetted trees to the west, like a shot from a cannon. It was the Space Station!!! And it was cruising! It arced up and up, heading northward, then northeast. As is sped across the heavens, it lost the bright red color, becoming plain white, shrinking in size, and finally vanishing all together as it entered the northeastern quadrant of the sky. On the radio they had said something about it disappearing as it entered the Earth's shadow (which we usually only see on the moon); maybe that was it.

The whole thing lasted about two minutes, but Charlotte and I figured it was well worth the price of admission.

Additionally, there was no moon out at that early hour, so the night sky was stunning, as it often is up here in the mountains. An arm of the Milky Way was draped across the heavens, its dense clusters of stars almost seeming like fog.

It's good to live in the mountains.

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