FirstLight Astronomy Club

33°29.6'N / 117°06.8'W / 1190 ft.

Satellites are easy to spot

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There are many of us who read this column who do not mind at all going out in the early evening and just looking up. Yes, it is a sky we have seen many times, but there is something fulfilling and magical about merely absorbing the celestial realm.

And those of us who partake of this heavenly ritual often observe something not so heavenly.

Many times an hour, from seemingly random directions, we see tiny little white objects moving gracefully through the stars. They do not twinkle like stars. They do not flash on and off. They are not accompanied by red and green lights common to airplanes. They are lone entities, moving smoothly and deliberately through the background stars.

Those are satellites. And there are many of them. How many?

There are literally thousands of them up there. There are, of course, military satellites peering into lives all over the world. We have scores of communications satellites to help with video and data transfer. Of course we have the GPS array up there helping us find our exact positions here on Earth. There are a myriad of imaging satellites, providing images of all kinds of things from Google Maps data to the temperatures of the oceans. And there is the International Space Station, a satellite that humans can actually inhabit.

Important to astronomy, there are of course satellites pointed away from Earth, providing us information on the rest of the universe, helping us to see it all in all kinds of wavelengths.

And they are in all manner of orbits. Some are barely skimming the atmosphere, others are tens of thousands of miles out. Some are going north to south, some generally east to west. Some are in nearly perfectly circular orbits, some are highly elliptical going from close to Earth's atmosphere to way, way out there every time they orbit.

Of all those thousands of satellites up there, only hundreds are actually working. The rest are non-functioning, dead satellites or just plain manmade space trash. What a mess!

But they are interesting to observe, nonetheless.

When looking for satellites the best times are the hours after sunset or before sunrise. That way our local skies are dark but the satellite is still high enough to catch the light of the sun. One fun thing to look for if you see a satellite moving away from the sun's vicinity is to watch it disappear in the skies. It just vanishes. Why? Because it has gone into Earth's shadow and reflects the sun's light no more.

There is one more important satellite to make mention of. It is very big, also reflects the sun's light, sometimes moves into our shadow, is about 240,000 miles away, and humans have inhabited it. What is that satellite? Yes, you guessed it - it is our Moon.

Until next time clear skies!

Astronomical facts give rise to hope

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Some of us who have a tendency to wax philosophical in life try to look beyond the cold facts of the natural world around us and instead draw inspiration from the creation. What life lessons can we possibly learn from looking at the skies?

Well, take the day for example. Because of the spin rate of our planet, we on Earth have a 24-hour day. That is the cold fact. But how can that simple physical phenomenon give us hope and inspiration?

Every day ends after only just a couple dozen hours. No matter how bad the day is going, it will be over, and soon. That is an encouragement to me. On the other hand, even if the day is going well, that is no guarantee that it will go well tomorrow. Time to prepare myself for the uncertainty of the next day. 

Another lesson the day gives us comes via the light-dark cycle. The fact is that light and darkness follow each other daily and have for countless eons. But we can let that simple  phenomenon remind us that no matter how dark and cold it gets in our lives, the sun will rise, the light will return, the warmth will come back. On the other hand, there may be light now and all seems to be going well, but darkness will come again in some form. Let us be prepared for that. 

On the larger time scale are the seasons. The Earth is tilted over slightly which allows us some months in which we are tilted towards the sun, and some in which we are tilted away. Hence the seasons. Those are the impersonal facts. 

But we can allow the seasons to be a life lesson for us. Winter gives way to spring every year of your life, without exception. Can we use this to give us hope? Sure. Are you feeling like it is winter for you - dark, bleak, dreary? It is probably just a season for you.  The lifeless winter you may be experiencing will break through to spring and new life. Hang in there.

On the other hand, those of us experiencing a kickback, relaxing summer in our lives might prepare for an inevitable autumn and winter; it will probably come. Be ready.

On a grander scale, our planet revolves around the sun in about 365 days. It is our orbital period, or year. Most of us on planet Earth arbitrarily assign January 1 as the switchover day to the new year. Those are the facts. 

But there is beauty in that event. Was your 2011 filled with hopelessness or financial or personal loss or sickness? The year is "over," it is behind you. It is of no use dwelling on it. It is done. There is hope that this new year will be different: perhaps a time of healing and renewal and fulfillment, one of finding meaning and joy.

The day, the night, the seasons and the year are all physical events. But let's use them as constant reminders of hope, but also as warnings to be wisely prepared. 
Temecula Valley High School / Temecula, CA · Some images © Gemini Observatory/AURA Contact Me