How to spot satellites

Spotting satelites brings back memories from my childhood.

One of the more pleasurable things I can remember about my childhood was spotting satellites with my father.

We lived out in the sticks near Branchland, West Virginia at the time, so light pollution wasn't a problem. Back then, small towns (Think of the town of Mayberry from The Andy Griffith Show) pretty much rolled up the streets at dusk, and all the stores were closed till the crack of dawn.

On Saturday evenings, Pop and I would ease out of the house just after sunset, climb up onto the hood of the old pickup truck, recline on the windshield, look up at the stars, and talk about the things men (I was all of seven years old) talk about. It was just us men out there. No girls were invited. My sisters weren't interested in spotting satellites anyway.

I don't remember much of what we talked about, but I do remember looking at the stars, and trying to spot the satellites moving across the sky.....There's one.....There's another....

My father passed away over twenty years ago, but I can still hear his voice every time I look up at the night sky....There's one....

The basics

First off, there are a lot of satellites in orbit around this planet, so you shouldn't have much trouble spotting a few. As of June 2009, there were over thirty five thousand of the buggers up there. Much of it is man made "Space junk". Of course none of the satellites were junk when they were launched. They just get old, wear out, break down, and they're technology becomes obsolete after a few years. As they wear out, and brake down, they get replaced with newer, higher tech, more versatile models. But many of the old ones are left in orbit. I wouldn't worry too much about all the space junk though, NASA tracks the space junk as well as the functioning satellites.

There are three basic types of satellite orbits, but there are many variations of the three. There is the Equatorial orbit where the satellite is on an east-west orbit. There is the Polar orbit where the satellite travels on a north-south direction. The third type is the Inclined orbit, where the satellites are moving at angles somewhere between the Polar and the Equatorial orbits.

There are low (fast) orbits, high (slow) orbits and then there’s an orbit called a Geostationary orbit, where the satellite doesn’t appear to move at all. That’s an optical illusion. The Geostationary satellites are orbiting the Earth at a speed that matches the Earths rotation, so they stay at the same spot above the Earth. They are also the satellites that the TV dishes are pointing at. Because they don't appear to move, it makes them very hard to spot, so we won’t worry about them.

Of the thousands of satellites up there, a few hundred can be seen by the naked eye on cloudless nights. A few satellites, like the International Space Station, can sometimes be seen in the daylight.

Best times for spotting.

From sunset to about two hours after sunset. Or about two hours before sunrise until it's too light to see the stars. You can stay longer if you want. These are just the optimal times. You will also need to have clear skies.

I like to watch the sunsets, so I go out a little early.

Satellites don't usually have lights on them, so what you will be looking for is the reflection of the sun bouncing off the reflective surfaces of the satellite. Once the satellites pass into the Earths shadow, you won't be able to see them any more. Therefore, midnight isn't a good time to look.

If you live in a city, light pollution could be a problem. You should try to find some place away from all those bright lights. Parks that allow camping are usually good places for spotting satellites. You'll also need to have a site with a clear view of the sky.

The moon is another source of light pollution, so spotting is best on moonless nights.

Fall through Spring are better for spotting in most places because there are fewer bugs to have to swat at.

What you need for spotting.

In all actuality, you don't need any hardware. You should be able to see many satellites without help. You will need warm clothing if it's a cold night. If it's warm, don't forget the mosquito repellent.

Although it's not required, you may want to bring a compass so you'll know in what direction you'll be looking.

If you have children, (girls can come too) you should bring them with you.

You could make it into a camping trip if you want to.

If you just happen to have a telescope or binoculars, these are nice too. I would also suggest a trypod if you brought binoculars over 7x50 power, Higher power binoculars tend to be shaky. There's also software available if you want to bring your laptop.

I don't recommend sitting on the hood of the truck. They don't build them like they used to.

What to look for.

Spotting satellites is really quite easy. You look up into the night sky, and see what's up there.

If you're spotting in the evening, you'll want to look in the general direction of the sunset.

Most satellites move across the sky more quickly than airplanes do. So, what you're looking for is that movement. Pick out a star, look at it for a minute or two. You should be able to see movement with your peripheral vision, you should be able to see what looks like a star moving near the star you're looking at. If you don't have any sitings in the first couple of minutes, then pick out another star, and look at it. Sooner or later you'll find that moving star, and those moving stars are usually satellites.

Remember, most satellites don't have lights on them. So, if that moving star you've just spotted has blinking lights on it, it's probably an airplane. Try again.

Oh yea. If that light you have been watching zig-zags or does some other strange or unbelivable maneuvers, don't worry. It's probably just swamp gas.

Just the beginning.

Once you get the hang of it, satellite spotting can be a great hobby. Who knows where it may lead. A hobby like this may lead your children to higher education. Maybe astronomy, rocket science or physics. They might even become astronauts. The sky is no limit!

Happy hunting!

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Comments 15 comments

GusTheRedneck profile image

GusTheRedneck 6 years ago from USA

ttagpine - Satellite facts and satellite twinkles are things we did not see growing up. We did a lot of star gazing, and, had we seen all of those things zipping around above, we'd have probably "run for the hills."

:-)))


ttagpine profile image

ttagpine 6 years ago Author

Hi Gus; How you doing. I believe the first satellite, Sputnik-1 was launched in October 1957. I was born in November 1957 so I was pretty much born into the Space age. I did a little star gazing when I was young, but I would quickly get distracted by the moving stars. I've always been fascinated by the idea of space travel. Maybe one of these days I'll realize I'm getting too old to be an astronaut.


GusTheRedneck profile image

GusTheRedneck 6 years ago from USA

ttagpine - Back in the early 1960s I was assigned to the USAF School of Aerospace Medicine in San Antonio. There we did physical exams on the several hundred NASA astronaut candidates. (Great assignment!) Most of them were into or close to their "30's." It is never really too late, particularly so here in 2010. If you have the bucks you can make it to the space station.

Gus :-)))


ttagpine profile image

ttagpine 6 years ago Author

I didn't say I've given up yet. I'm sure that Virgin Galactic will have a space bus before much longer.


Gazer 6 years ago

Thank you for the information! I love observing outer space (space limits - LOL) However, I don't know from one bright light to another, definitively or distinctly what each is. I would love to obtain information and learn which lights delineate from the others...(i.e., which are stars, planetary lights, satellites, or the U.S.A Spacestation)


Your favorite sister 6 years ago

I have my own memories of watching Sputnik with Pop, in Aunt Mary's backyard...with your other siblings. HA! I was spotting it before you were born.

I am happy that you have this memory, too.


priya 5 years ago

ttagpani, thnx for that info..been watching moving stars long time n figured they wer satellites... but first time i saw the moving brite star zigzag n do a crazy jig i did run for my life !!!!!!!!!!Dint kno wat they were .!!!! thnx for clearg that up 4 me :))


woothie profile image

woothie 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

I'm a budding astronomer (at 38!) and I find the universe fascinating. I've been trying to spot satellites recently and I think I saw one the other night. I'll certainly use your tips though, and try again.


ttagpine profile image

ttagpine 5 years ago Author

Hi woothie; I've read a couple of your hubs. you're way ahead of me on this subject. About the only thing I may have had on you is experience from my job. I was a captain on utility boats in the Gulf of Mexico for 25 years. I had night duty a lot. I never could name the satellites I could see, but I could always find them.

Thanks for reading my stories.


sagar 5 years ago

Woow the same thing was happened in my child hood too.

every day my father took me to up stare of my house and use to show me satellites and hearing radio. this is the most memorable thing in my child hood. and when grown up now I miss all the fun. and now looking for the same thing again and after long time I again remembered and googled for "how satellites are visible through night sky". I got your post. it is really great and beautiful co incidence. any how the child hood memories are beautiful ever. I cant forget those days. but now a days life is too busy. cant look at the night sky.I hope those days come soon.


ttagpine profile image

ttagpine 5 years ago Author

Thanks sagar; There's nothing quite like the good memories from childhood.


bikram 4 years ago

ur right..


valerie 4 years ago

Can these satellite/ star like figures move all different directions and can there be like 20 of them almost one after another in the same night?


ttagpine profile image

ttagpine 4 years ago Author

Thanks for reading Valerie; I'll answer the second part of your question first. There are thousands of satellites up there so, yes, you could see many of them one after another.

As for the first part, if you're asking about single satellites changing directions, no. Satellites can't visibly change directions. They pretty much have to move in a straight line in order to maintain enough speed to stay in orbit. A major change in directions would cause them to loose that speed. On the other hand, if you saw 20 different satellites, and each one going in a different direction from the others, yes. Satellites are launched to go into orbit in whatever direction is needed to do the job it was sent to do.

If you saw something that was visibly changing directions, it was not a satellite.


Brookes 2 years ago

I used to watch satellites with my dad in the evenings ... Used to follow each if them till they were out of sight... I miss it it used to be fun.... And I was a small girl then ....

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