x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Stargazers left in dark by biggest satellite

The station makes regular appearances over the UAE - the next one being on Wednesday - but not many know how or where to spot it.

The International Space Station as seen from the space shuttle Discovery as the spacecraft begin to draw apart. The station is large enough to be easily visible to the naked eye as it passes over the UAE.
The International Space Station as seen from the space shuttle Discovery as the spacecraft begin to draw apart. The station is large enough to be easily visible to the naked eye as it passes over the UAE.

ABU DHABI // Several times a month the International Space Station appears over the UAE as a bright point of light, travelling across the sky at the speed of an aeroplane before disappearing over the horizon, but hardly anyone ever looks up to see it, astronomers here say.

"When we have stargazing parties and we say there's a satellite, everybody goes, 'wow'," said Hasan al Hariri, the CEO of the Dubai Astronomy Group. "Not many people know about it." The space station is the Earth's largest man-made satellite and easily visible to the naked eye. It will make another appearance over the UAE next week, with only the moon outshining it in the early evening sky. According to predictions, the space station will be visible from the Emirates between 7.58pm and 8.02pm next Wednesday.

It will appear in the north north-west area of the sky, reach maximum visibility in the north-east, and fade from view in the east south-east. According to current data, it will be visible again on July 31 at about 7.15pm, on August 13 at about 5.23am and on August 15 at about 4.37am. However, those who wish to see should check the viewing times online closer to appearance date, as these can change if the space station's orbit has been boosted.

The space station becomes visible for a few minutes at dawn or dusk because it is lit up by the sun while the country is darkness. When it passes overhead in the daytime the sunshine tends to make it invisible, while in the middle of the night the satellite is obscured from the sun's rays and so cannot be seen. Mr al Hariri said he had seen the space station twice, with a telescope and with the naked eye.

A telescope of 10 inches or more gives "a very clear image" of the satellite in which its four arms and modules can be identified, according to Mr al Hariri. Though several other satellites can also be spotted from Earth, Mr al Hariri said the space station was the most clearly visible as a moving point of light. Chris Peat, owner of the website heavens-above.com, which gives details about satellite spotting times, said the space station was "very bright".

"It's a lot brighter than most people realise," he said. "It easily outshines all the stars, so it's not difficult to spot. "It flies across the sky at about the same speed as a high-flying aircraft, but it won't blink. It's a steady light. It's very difficult to miss if you go out at the right time." People should go outside a few minutes before the space station is predicted to pass over to get accustomed to the light, he advised.

While the space station can be seen from urban areas, it is more easily observed away from bright city lights. Mr Peat, who is based in Germany and works as a software engineer for that country's space agency, said people in the UAE did not seem to be particularly interested in watching the skies. His website receives 300,000 hits a day on average, but in the past month it had a mere 37 visitors from the UAE.

The International Space Station is a research facility run by the American, Japanese, Canadian, European, Brazilian and Russian space agencies. Construction of the station has been continuing since it was first occupied in 1998 and it is now more than three-quarters complete. It is currently hosting the American shuttle Endeavour. The station will be 108 metres long and 74m wide on completion, expected sometime next year. It orbits the Earth every 90 minutes.

Research carried out on the space station includes the effects of living in space on human bones and muscles. The space station's viewing times can be checked at the website www.heavens-above.com.

dbardsley@thenational.ae