Sky’s the limit for local stargazers

The International Space Station orbiting the Earth. Pic courtesy of NASA.
The International Space Station orbiting the Earth. Pic courtesy of NASA.
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There are some brilliant opportunities coming up to see an actual orbiting satellite in the skies above Newtownabbey, writes Brian McCalden.

Over the last few days and again this week, the crewed International Space Station (ISS) is on an orbital path that puts it into easy sight for observers in Co Antrim. It is bright enough to be seen with the naked eye, and its location in the sky can be found using the Internet.

The ISS is to be visible from Earth without a telescope, but because on each pass overhead it traverses the sky in only a few minutes and its orbit only passes above the horizon of a given location a limited number of times per day, knowing when and where to look is vital.

It gives off little or no light of its own, so can only be seen around dusk and dawn as sunlight reflects off its surface, but there’s a rare chance to observe the wonders of space travel at first hand this week.

It’s made all the more exciting with news last month that the crew were forced to take refuge in escape capsules as a piece of ‘space junk’ hurtled by.

Just a few weeks ago, a discarded piece of Russian rocket was detected, but as it was too late to move the ISS the Russian, American and Dutch astronauts on board climbed into two Soyuz escape capsules in case the station was hit.

However, the risk to the 17,239mph ISS passed and now, should meteorological conditions allow it, ‘naked eye’ observers can see it fly past.

Using data from websites such as www.heavens-above.com local people can do some stargazing of their own. The website provides free access for registered users for data on individual locations around the globe. And areas such as north Belfast and Newtownabbey are in the frame this week - but only for minutes each time.

Anyone who can get away from bright lights (any open space will be fine) - and allow time for their eyes to adjust - can look west south west on Thursday (April 19) at 9.20pm for an unusually long viewing window of over five minutes when the ISS will be at the right attitude and position.

Light from the setting sun refracts off the fast moving ISS to provide a view of what appears to be a very fast-moving star that is lit-up, before being absorbed into the night as it moves on around the globe.

There will be a further opportunity to view on Friday (April 20) starting at one minute to 10pm, looking west (where the sun sets) for almost four minutes of visibility before it disappears again into the darkness at the south east.

Amazingly, the ISS will come back into view again over Glengormley after completing a full circumnavigation of the globe - just over 90 minutes later (that’s how fast it travels) at 11.36pm, but will only be visible for less than a minute, so best to go for the earlier show - although clear skies are a must for success.