Island Orbit

How to spot satellites and space junk in Hawai’i’s nighttime sky.


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Here, a weather satellite is about to be launched, using a rocket to carry it. The spent rocket stages will become “space junk.” photo: courtesy of NASA

For astronomy buffs, June is a good month for “bird” watching. We’re not talking about mynahs, though—these birds are worth millions of dollars. On display in the clear summer skies this month, for example, are luminary visitors The International Space Station and the Hubble Space Station.

These are just two of the brighter objects travelling over Hawai‘i—The U.S. Strategic Command, working as a kind of outer-space traffic control, keeps track of roughly 8,500 manmade objects that are in orbit to ensure space missions won’t collide with anything. You, too, can keep an eye on the International Space Station and the Hubble. To track them, log onto the Heavens-Above Web site (www.heavens-above.com), and get a daily list of visible satellites.

Many space objects are operational satellites providing services such as telecommunications, espionage and weather observation. The rest is space junk: dead satellites, used rocket bodies, even a wrench that was dropped by an astronaut during a space walk. The Russian Okean O, a spent rocket booster, is a frequent visitor over our Islands and appears as a quickly flashing ball of light. Working satellites such as Japan’s TRMM are relatively stable, shining constantly as they glide overhead.

Before heading out to satellite spot, get familiar with compass directions. Make sure your eyes are night-adjusted by going outside about 15 minutes before your scheduled pass. Saturn and Mars shine brightly in the western sky this month and can help you get your bearings. Binoculars aren’t required—it’s easier without them, but clear skies are important. Look for a star that seems to drift steadily across the sky. It’s a Space Age take on bird watching.

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