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Seeing the Space Station

Week of December 14, 1998

There is an interesting phrase in English: `Not seeing the forest for the trees'. It means that you can spend so much time scrutinizing an object or a subject that you lose track of the bigger picture. I am guilty of doing this sometimes myself; most recently just last week.

I make it a habit to check the Heavens Above Satellite Visibility page every Monday to see if there are any interesting satellites that will be passing overhead that week. Regular readers may remember a Snack entirely devoted to that website; for the others, the Heavens Above page allows you to see what bright satellites will be within your view if you give it your latitude and longitude.

When I checked it a couple of weeks ago I was surprised to see the Zarya module listed. Zarya was the first component of the International Space Station. This week, the crew of the Space Shuttle Endeavour have completed mating the American Unity module to Zarya, which comprises the first of many many construction efforts to complete the station. Anyway, when I went to the Heavens Above page, the author had already included the Zarya module on his list of satellites. This surprised me for two reasons: one is that the module had only been up a few days and was already on the list, and the other was that it would be visible from my location. Usually, interesting satellites like Hubble or the Space Shuttle are in orbits that make it hard to see from where I am (near Washington, DC), so it comes as a pleasant surprise when I get a chance to see them.

But that's not the real reason I got a jolt when I saw Zarya listed at Heavens Above. The real reason is that although I have been reading about it for years and have even watched some of the mission on TV, the space station didn't seem real to me. It was something I saw on TV, not something I could see for myself! Funny; one of the reasons I started the Bad Astronomy pages is that most people don't realize that astronomy is real, you can go out for yourself and see a lot of it. And there I was, suffering the same tunnel vision!

I'm glad it happened. I have been caught up recently doing a lot of work with Hubble images for a meeting I'll be attending soon, and it's easy to forget how real all this is; it's not just images on a computer or TV screen but an actual object or event occurring. It's always good to make sure that even the teacher gets a kick in the complacency when it comes to the subject they teach. ;-)

So go to the Heavens Above page, give it your coordinates (don't know them? Try Mapblast) and see if the space station will be passing over your very own head. Seeing is believing!

©2008 Phil Plait. All Rights Reserved.

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