Free Tools On The Internet For Satellite Tracking
In this digital age there os nothing that technological sphere does not cover. Similarly, hobbies have also gone hi-tech and ‘tracking satellites' in orbits is one such hobby among many others. Enthusiastic amateurs from around the world use binoculars and telescopes to track man-made objects in the sky.The practice started in 1957 when the Soviets launched Sputnik satellite. Soon the US developed its space programme and about 100 groups worked under an elaborated network of Project Moonwatch. They relayed information through which speed, altitude and other orbital parametres were determined. Although with the development of modern space technology, the practice of predicting an enemy satellite position is not left entirely with amateurs like it did in the early Sputnik days. But hobbyists still find it interesting to predict satellite paths. And this is true for both commercial satellites as well as spying satellites whose path data is intentionally kept secret.For educational and learning purposes, as well as for want to-be astronomers, naked-eye astronomy and satellite tracking remains very much alive. There are several online and offline tools which assist this hobby and we are going to take a look at few of them.
Gpredict is a freeware tool available for Linux, Mac and Windows. It has a very vibrant map layout that displays multiple satellite footprints in the same window. Since it is tab-enabled, users can create different modules, each with its own collection of satellites shown in an impressive three-window view with a world map, a polar view in radar screen and a tabular format. Satellites can be added or deleted from an extensive list categorised under Amateur, Cubesat, Geo, Gps-ops, Iridium, Military, Radar, Science and Weather. Right-clicking on a particular satellite on the map brings out pop up menu that can be used to show next pass or a future pass of the satellite.
The maps are dynamic and constantly update themselves to reflect the current satellite position as per the calculation of algorithms implemented. One of the most interesting features of Gpredict is that it tells longitude, latitude and altitude in metres above the sea level of a number of important cities and locations around the world while configuring them as ground stations. Going to Edit> Preferences> Ground Stations tab, and pressing Add New, one can see a number of world locations categorised by region, available for selection using the Select button.
Other Windows tools
This tool is for Windows only and it is called ‘Foot print satellite tracking programme'. The programme interface is simple enough with a large world map in the centre where satellites can be added. There is a prediction menu that can be used to generate lists for a day, seven days or even 14 days prediction.
Additionally, the position of sun and moon can also be displayed on the world map. These satellites can be turned on/off from the left panel, whereas controls at the top can be used to change the time and date instantly which affects the orbits of displayed satellites.
Win Orbit, yet another tool for Windows that performs satellite prediction. This programme came up as a hobby and now has been made available for other hobbyists. It offers tracking of sun and the moon as well, and it can display view from space, has four tracking algorithms and a maximum of 20 satellites can simultaneously be monitored. To make this programme run, do not forget to download vbrun300.dll file available from its website which needs to be present in the folder in which the ‘Win Orbit' executable file resides. Plus, this is one of the few satellite tracking tools that actually offers a decent help file.
All such tools use complex mathematics to compute and display the position of artificial earth satellites from different points in time. Apart from these offline tools, there are few very useful online tools as well. Some of the popular ones include Nasa's J-Track for tracking Hubble and Mir, and website like Heavens Above and N2yo.
There are hundreds of satellites roving in the orbit of earth at various heights. Out of these, geostationary which do not appear to move and Low Earth Orbit (LEO) have greatest chances of being spotted. There are lists of top brightest satellites available as well. Tracking them using combination of equipment and software, or even simply learning about them through freely available tools can be fun and informative at the same time. Particularly for those who want to know more about how satellites travel, these free utilities can be a great learning source.