Almost ten years ago I got to be involved in an astronomical experiment. The US Air Force had recently completed a technologically sophisticated telescope on Haleakela, the highest peak on Maui, for the purpose of spying on satellites as they went overhead. The National Science Foundation was interested to know if the new telescope might prove useful for astronomers, too, so they recruited a few test cases to come see if they could make it work.
The tests were, ultimately, ambiguous. We were trying to observe Saturn’s moon Titan to see if we could take images of hurricane-sized storms moving across its surface. We were stymied as much by horrendously bad weather (on Haleakala, not on Titan), as we were by cultural differences between astronomers and the Air Force. (My favorite: our observations of Titan were temporarily classified, because “Titan” is the same word as “titan” which is a missle. The people doing the classifying thoroughly understood that we were observing the moon of Saturn but, by the rules, any observations of “[T]itan” were to be classified.)
But though we were generally stymied, one moment at that telescope will stick in my memory forever. We were waiting for Titan (the moon of Saturn) to rise high enough in the sky that night and watching over the operators’ shoulders as they spied on satellites. Whenever they were foreign satellites we were kicked out of the room. But whenever they were U.S. satellite we could stay and watch.
At 4am the night before, as we were driving down the mountain after a night of observing, we had listened intently to the news of the Space Shuttle parked at the International Space Station and the installations to be done that day. They were having problems, apparently, with getting a solar panel to unfurl correctly. We went to sleep not knowing what had happened. As we drove back up the mountain the next day we had still not heard any news.
Around 8pm, though, Elvis, one of the operators, said “ISS coming!” meaning that the International Space Station was soon to fly overhead.
“Hey, you guys seen the ISS before?” Elvis asked.
“Not that I know of” I said.
“This a sight to see; hold on.”
And the giant telescope swung to the horizon and started tracking the space station as it went across the sky and the other operator came in and starting making adjustment on the computer and then, suddenly, the Space Station came into focus.
It looked much like all of the other pictures of the Space Station that I had ever seen before with two exceptions. First, the solar panels were unfurled.
“Ah ha!” we said. “I guess they were successful last night.”
Second, we could see the Space Shuttle parked next to it. Every other picture I had ever seen had been taken from the Space Shuttle, so I had never seen what it looks like when the shuttle is parked right there.
The view was so good that if a spacewalk had been happening right then and an astronaut had turned around to wave at the earth we would have seen him well enough to know to wave back.
The telescope tracked the Space Station for about 4 minutes. When it was over, I picked my jaw up off the floor. It was, perhaps, the most amazing pictures I had ever seen a telescope make before, and it was just over our heads, rather than in the remote depths of space.
Only a few weeks ago, on these very pages, I tried to remind people to Look Up! To remember that stars and planets and galaxies are not abstract things that we read about but are real concrete and viewable things in the sky above. But, really, for most of my life, I’ve been just as guilty when it comes to those other things that occupy our night skies: the satellites. It’s not that I don’t see them all the time when I am looking at the sky, but I never think of them as anything more than spots of light moving across the heavens. Sure, I know all about the Space Station. I use the Hubble Space Telescope as often as I can. I think about the astronauts and the Space Shuttle and watch NASA TV to make sure the launch and the walks go ok. But somehow I still fail to make that cognitive leap that reminds me that these things are real, and are really in the skies over head.
Until this week.
Knowing that the Shuttle was up visiting the Hubble Space Telescope for the last time, I got an overwhelming urge to see them both, to somehow make a visual connection with the astronauts who are up there risking their lives so that people like me can continue to make astronomical discoveries. I knew that, in theory, you should be able to see such things, but I didn’t really know how. I did what any rational person would do in 2009, which is to search Google. And I found my new obsession: www.heavens-above.com
Simply tell the web site your latitude and longitude and it will tell you all of the bright satellites that will go overhead tonight.
I tried it the other night. The Space Station was making what I now realize was a particularly favorable pass. At 9:51pm I went outside (a full 2 minutes early, just in case, though I need not have). I waited. I traced precisely where I thought it was supposed to go and stared and stared just in case it was a bit faint to see in the glow of the Los Angeles skies. And then, precisely, on schedule, it silently and majestically moved from the southwest horizon to nearly overhead to the northern horizon over the course of about 4 minutes. It was brighter than anything else in the sky at the time.
I had seen it before, I am certain. But I had never seen it and known what I was seeing. I ran back inside and said to my wife Diane:
“I just saw the Space Station go overhead. It was one of the most amazing sights in the sky I have ever seen!”
She looked at me, nodded, and went back to the email she was writing.
OK. I get it. Satellites aren’t for everyone. But they’re out there. They’re real. They’re waiting. That bright light travelling across the sky contained three people who at that precise moment could have been looking down and seeing the crescent earth with the sun still illuminating the Pacific while California was now bathed in dark. Those people are really there.
As for the Space Shuttle, which set me on this mission, it hasn’t been visible yet. You can only see satellites when – like an airplane high in the sky at sunset – they are still illuminated by the sun while you are in the dark. By chance that has not happened over California yet while the Shuttle has been up. I might get a chance on Friday, when it is low in the sky around 5am. I will definitely wake up for it. It’ll be my last chance to see the Hubble Space Telescope and the Shuttle together and to remind myself that up there these things that we built, these people that fly to them, are all real, and finally on their way back home.