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Sky-watchers may get a glimpse of passing spacecraft

NEAR spacecraft
NEAR spacecraft  

'As bright as any star in the sky'

January 21, 1998
Web posted at: 10:17 p.m. EST (0317 GMT)

From Correspondent Ann Kellan

ATLANTA (CNN) -- The brief return of a spacecraft to the vicinity of Earth Thursday night and Friday morning will give sky-watchers in the United States an opportunity to catch a glimpse of it in the night sky before it hurtles deep into space.

NASA's Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous -- NEAR -- spacecraft is on a four-year mission to study Eros, a potato-shaped asteroid more than 14 million miles away.

Launched two years ago, NEAR is headed back to use Earth's gravity to gain momentum and change its trajectory before being slung back out into space.

Spacecraft routinely slingshot around the Earth to pick up speed necessary to reach long distances. NEAR will come within 336 miles of Earth and will take pictures of Antarctica as it passes overhead.

"As it gets close to the Earth," says David Dunham of the Applied Physics Laboratory, "it first sweeps high over Mexico and then over the Pacific. Then it arcs up over the North Pacific, falling ever faster toward the Earth."

As it rounds the globe, people in the United States will have the chance to see a 30-second flash of light -- the reflection of the sun off NEAR's solar panels.

'As bright as any star in the sky'

When to see the NEAR spacecraft
Eastern time zone
Friday 1:25 am - 1:35 am
Central time zone
Friday 12:25 am - 12:40 am
Mountain time zone
Thursday 11:25 pm - 11:45 pm
Pacific time zone
Thursday 10:40 pm - 10:50 pm

"The spacecraft will be bright," Dunham said, "about as bright as any star in the northwestern sky."

To see it, look in the northwest sky. People on the East Coast should look halfway up for the brightest star, which is called Capella. On the West Coast, Capella will be higher in the sky.

Put your left hand out with the little finger on Capella. NEAR should appear slightly to the right of your thumb.

Watch for a flashing or flickering bright light that looks like a star. That should be NEAR.

East Coast sky-watchers should be able to see it about 1:25 a.m. Friday. It will be visible in the central time zone about 12:30 a.m., in the mountain time zone about 11:35 p.m. Thursday and on the West Coast around 10:40 p.m.

According to NASA, people in Denver may get a good view because of the angle of the spacecraft, but those in the northern plains states -- Minnesota, the Dakotas, Montana and Wyoming -- may not see it at all.

Those on the east and west coasts and in southern states have a better view, but the best of all will be in Hawaii.

"The island of Oahu will have the best show," Dunham said, "and that will be at 8:48 p.m."


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