17 Degrees

About a year ago, whilst I was deployed to the Middle East, I was doing some writing “research” about satellite orbits. Basically, I wanted to see how a space station orbits the earth and what it looks like from the ground.Thankfully, we live in a day and age when humanity has actually built a space station. Like so many other examples, the science fiction of yesteryear has become established fact. Congratulations, humanity! Achievement unlocked!

We live in a day and age where just about the whole sum of human knowledge is available to me in seconds, appearing on a device I slip into my pocket. We recently landed a rocket on a small boat to prove the concept of reusable launch vehicles. We’ve placed probes on the surface of Mars and sent them outside our solar system. And we’re grasping at the very first stages of space travel, putting humans in low earth orbit for a year at a time to better understand the effects of prolonged exposure to zero Gs and all the other issues that come with life beyond the terrestrial boundaries.

This is pretty heady stuff!

Back in the Desert, in the course of my procrastinating under the guise of Googling, I discovered NASA has a site that tells you when the International Space Station (ISS) will be passing by your area. You too can Spot the Station!

They only provide results around sunrise and sunset, so that there’s the best contrast of dark sky with bright space station (as it reflects the sunlight still brightly shining on its surfaces but not brightly shining in the spectator’s eyes). So there may not be what they consider a good sighting for some time in your particular area. (I checked a few months ago for Naha, Okinawa, and got “no results found.”)

But they will also provide you email or text alerts if you sign up for the service.

A year ago, I also discovered the next sighting near my base would be in a few days’ time. So when that date came, I stepped outside, stood between two buildings to minimize light interference, and watched the sky.

The site gives you all the details on where to look and how to guesstimate degrees in the sky. If you hold your fist straight out and rest it on the horizon, that’s roughly ten degrees. So when the site tells you to look to the northwest at 17 degrees, you can figure out roughly where to expect a bright shining light to mystically appear in the sky.

Sure enough, at the appointed time, in the appointed place, a dim object appeared in the sky, cruising across the field of stars. In seconds, it grew brighter than the rest of them, moving too fast to be an airplane, too slow and steady to be a meteor. I watched it cross the black until it faded and vanished in the middle of the sky.

Tonight it will be visible from Okinawa from 8:20 to 8:22 PM. So my kids and I will take a car ride out to a nearby hill to see if (clouds permitting) we can spot the station.

And I’ll try to impress upon them the wonder and the significance of the thought that there are human beings living in that motley assortment of modules floating across the heavens.

I hope that to some degree I’ve impressed it upon you as well.

If you’re on Okinawa, maybe try 17 degrees northwest.

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