Star-gazing for space trash
June 25, 1999
(CNN) -- Some people spend a lifetime memorizing the stars and their relative positions in the 88 constellations that slowly track across the heavens.
For the rest of us, NASA has a Web site that tracks celestial satellites and space trash.
The site, at liftoff.msfc.nasa.gov, has detailed maps of where to find 500 of the more than 8,000 man-made objects in orbit around Earth, objects that virtually race through the sky relative to the imperceptible shift of constellations.
Some objects are too far away to see with the naked eye, but those in low-Earth orbit, including the Russian space station Mir, space shuttles, Hubble Space Telescope and International Space Station, circle the globe as often as 16 times a day.
They are easy to spot -- if you know when and where to look.
"You'll be able to track (them) with our software but the more exciting thing is to go outside and see it for yourself," says Patrick Meyer of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, which hosts the site.
More than 2,500 of the objects are satellites, both operative and inoperative. The rest is debris such as nosecone shrouds, lenses, hatch covers, rocket bodies, payloads that have disintegrated or exploded and even objects that have "escaped" from manned spacecraft during operations.
For some, tracking space debris is a hobby, says John Mosley, an astronomer with the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles.
"Apparently some people become intrigued by it," he says. The difference is there are no flashing lights on satellites and space trash, and the objects appear as only a single light moving across the sky.
"The stars remain fixed relative to each other but the space debris moves through the sky," Mosley says. "The space debris moves through and it's pretty obvious. If you don't pay attention you probably won't see any. When you see them, you often wonder what they are."
The NASA Web site (start by clicking on satellites) includes a place to leave your e-mail address for updates when a satellite is passing your location. Or you can click on where you live and which objects you wish to track, and you'll receive an hour by hour breakdown of when they are passing by and a map of their path.
The only time to see a satellite is at dusk and at dawn, Meyer says. "That's when the satellite's in sunlight and we're in darkness," he says.
CNN Correspondent Ann Kellan contributed to this report, which was written by CNN Interactive Senior Writer Robin Lloyd.
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