Village Sky At Night with Brian Watkiss

Shining skies

Posted on June 28 2012 at 11:37:19 0 comments

Amateur astronomer Brian Watkiss peers into the Village night sky.

July, the month when it never seems to get dark, well, not in astronomical terms anyway. At least the evenings should be warmer (?) and it can be great for sitting outside and staring up at the sky – I spend many hours doing just that.

“Why?” I hear you ask. As the skies start to darken, there is a plethora of satellites to see, orbiting silently hundreds of miles above our heads. A glance at on a typical evening reveals a diverse list of objects, mostly spent rockets or empty fuel tanks but also an intriguing collection of satellites.

They have a variety of purposes, including reconnaissance, educational, experimental, communication and space telescopes – all visible from your own back garden! Of course, the most famous and by far the brightest of all is the International Space Station. The brightest because it is the largest man-made object ever placed in orbit.

So, just how big is it? Well, the main body of the station is a collection of tubes just under 14 feet in diameter. That’s about from the bedroom ceiling to the floor of the living room in a typical two-storey house.

If this jumble of modules was laid out in the centre of Alvechurch, one end would rest on the back wall of The Joshua Tree (sorry Jacqui and Phill) and the other end would reach the back of Mr Crow’s (sorry Paul). There is a Japanese module which sticks out at this end which would restrict access to the surgery (sorry everyone).

However, just as the slender body of a butterfly is barely noticeable amidst the grandeur of its wings, so it is with the ISS. It doesn’t have wings, of course, but solar panels in four sections, just like a butterfly’s wings.

Each of these sections could just about be laid out in the car park behind the Red Lion, still allowing access to the toilets. These are mounted on trusses either side of the main body (the solar panels, not the toilets!) so that the whole thing would just fit on to the cricket pitch.

Given that it is all painted white or shiny, you can see why it’s so bright. Unfortunately, it just catches a few wisps of atmosphere as it orbits, so it has to be boosted from time to time to stop it falling back to Earth.

This means that although its orbit is fixed, the period varies, so the times when it is visible aren’t predictable very far in advance. It is unmistakable though.

Mars and Saturn are with us all month but getting lower and lower in the Sunset. Look for a conjunction of them with the Moon on the 24th and 25th. August sees the end of the bright planets in the evenings although Venus and Jupiter are there in the early mornings. Look out for them just before sunrise.

To make up for this, we have what I think is the best meteor shower of the year. It’s called the Perseids and it peaks on the 12th but you will see “shooting stars” all month.

So get out there and start looking; you’ll soon see why I spend so much time staring skywards.

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